The whole world was watching when Amber Guyger went to trial in Dallas.
Every day for almost two weeks, local TV stations and at least one national channel displayed live broadcasts of the trial.
Guyger, a white former Dallas police officer, was convicted of murder Oct. 1 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was accused of fatally shooting her neighbor, who was black, in his own apartment.
From the beginning of the case, Dallas residents and Americans as a whole worried that justice would fall prey to racism and corruption.
But the daily broadcasts of Guyger’s trial gave thousands of people a front-seat view of controversial trial’s proceedings, including body camera footage recorded by police and testimony that showed officers may have mishandled the case.
Some of that testimony showed Guyger’s partner deleted text messages sent by her. It was also revealed that a Dallas police sergeant ordered in-car cameras recording Guyger turned off at a critical moment.
In the ensuing public outrage, the Dallas Police Department has since ordered an internal affairs investigation.
The transparency afforded by District Judge Tammy Kemp in Guyger’s trial is rare for good reason. Trials like those for O.J. Simpson, Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez easily bring to mind the phrase “media circus.”
Although the First Amendment prevents the press from being excluded from the courtroom, that right is not an absolute. Judges have discretion to determine what kind of media coverage is allowed.
Under the eye of TV cameras, Bundy proposed marriage to a witness during court. At Ramirez’s first court appearance, he raised his palm to display a pentagram and yelled, “Hail Satan.”
Simpson’s trial lasted an unprecedented 11 months and cost taxpayers $4.2 million.
In 1996, federal courts experimented with the use of cameras in the courtroom but limited their use after concluding they distracted trial participants, unfairly affected the outcome of the trial and diminished the dignity of the courts.
That’s exactly why many Crossroads judges shy from allowing video or even still cameras into trial proceedings. They say when cameras are watching, attorneys and witnesses are likely to give performances rather than keep their minds on their work.
They also worry about emotions within in the courtroom agitating to a frenzy and disturbing the objectivity required for justice. Of perhaps lesser but still meaningful concern is the possibility of attorneys’ private notes being displayed.
But that doesn’t mean area judges think trials should be secret.
Many if not most of our judges will promote the importance of the public’s participation and observation of trial proceedings.
It’s absolutely essential for the public to trust and believe in the vital democratic processes that occur there. Sunshine and transparency are one of the best ways to promote and ensure that trust.
Cameras can also ensure a criminal defendant receives a fair trial, show the public that the system are being applied in a fair manner, discourage perjury and misconduct and educate the public about the court system.
While cameras may be a hindrance in many trials, they should not be forbidden indiscriminately.
Our very government depends on that right.
Some trials involve circumstances of the highest public interest, and their broadcasts can promote accountability.
Americans deserved an unfiltered view of evidence of public corruption in Guyger’s trial. They also needed to see that killing a black man by a white police officer wasn’t being swept under the rug.
Such circumstances require the highest order of transparency.
Public trust is an essential element of our democracy, and courtroom cameras promote that trust, especially when it is at risk of being damaged.
Just ask the residents of Dallas.