The Serious, Somber Boston Marathon Bombing Trial

Why we don’t—and shouldn’t—have cameras in federal courtrooms.

A courtroom sketch shows accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar,A courtroom sketch shows accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Better drawn than broadcast to the world: A courtroom sketch shows accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in court on the second day of his trial at the federal courthouse in Boston on March 5, 2015.

Image by Jane Flavell Collins/Reuters

On WGBH’s Beat the Press, the ritual end-of-week gripe session for Boston-centric media junkies, host Emily Rooney expressed outrage that, “in this day and age,” television cameras are not permitted in the Moakley federal courthouse to cover the trial of the no-longer-alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Sure, there was no lack of press presence—some 40 reporters were in the courtroom scribbling on notepads or tapping on touchscreens—but due process demanded due video. Rooney spoke for the pundit consensus. Tom Fiedler, dean of the college of communication at Boston University, agreed that a “courtroom that’s transparent” required stenography by television.

Me, I’m glad the Tsarnaev trial is not on television. I’m glad that the celebrity of the terrorist/narcissist will not be enhanced with full-screen close-ups, glad that the survivors and witnesses will not see their anguish replayed on an endless highlight reel, and glad that the judicial system can operate without the transfixing, transformative, and sometimes corrosive gaze of television. I’d rather the Boston Marathon bombing not be turned into a reality show.

The arguments about the propriety of cameras in the courtroom go back to the birth of photography, but for most of the last century, the cumbersome technology and traditional notions of judicial decorum made the notion of cameras in the courtroom as unthinkable as live musical accompaniment. The signature clarifying moment occurred during the Trial of the Century, the prosecution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnap-murder of the Lindbergh baby. In 1935 the courthouse in sleepy Flemington, New Jersey, was rocked by the first full-on media scrum in American history, as the three tentacles of modern journalism—press syndicates, radio, and newsreels—reached out in force. Presiding Judge Thomas W. Trenchard denied access to the radio networks for live broadcasting but, in a “gentleman’s agreement” with the newsreel editors, he permitted a 35 mm motion picture camera to be positioned in the balcony of the courtroom—with the stipulation that it be turned on only when witnesses were not on the stand, never during actual cross-examination.

However, unable to resist the heartbreaking impact of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s identification of her baby’s clothing and the high-tension drama of District Attorney David T. Wilentz boring in on Hauptmann, the newsreel editors decided to be journalists first and gentlemen second. Unbeknownst to the judge, they switched on the camera and filmed. When the newsreels were released to theaters, the better-than-Hollywood scenes caused a sensation. “What does Bruno Hauptmann say? How does he look? What will be the jury’s and public’s reaction to his testimony?” teased advertisements in theater lobbies. The judge and the DA went ballistic and ordered the footage withdrawn. Some newsreel companies complied, others defied the order.

So unnerving to the guardians of justice was the “circus atmosphere” surrounding the Hauptman trial that in 1937 the American Bar Association adopted a resolution, Canon 35 of its ethical code, which forbade photography in courtrooms, a prohibition amended in 1963 to include television. Extraordinary as it may seem today, when so many lawyers’ lips are moving on so many screens, the legal profession once harbored a deep antipathy to cameras in the courtroom. Too much exposure by unregulated radio, film, and television might undermine the majesty of the law and its representatives on Earth, attorneys and judges.

It would be decades before cameras insinuated their way back into American courtrooms, which is why so many of the epochal trials of the 1960s and 1970s—the Chicago Seven, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst—are apprehended through the brushstrokes of sketch artists, not the unspooling of film or video.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, as television technology became less intrusive, state courts began to allow cameras into the courtroom—first a trickle, soon a wave. The incursion fit the zeitgeist. Television was becoming ever more the central medium of American life, with average citizens now bringing video cameras into once-privileged spaces: weddings, school plays, even delivery rooms. By 1991, when Court TV debuted, there was enough courtroom content to fill an entire niche cable channel. One after another, holdout states surrendered to the momentum. Even the stubbornly resistant federal courts seemed ready to succumb.

Then, in 1994, the second Trial of the Century provided an acid test for the presence of cameras in the courtroom: the nearly 10-month-long miniseries that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The legal-cum-televisual spectacle featured a star-struck judge, telegenic performers, an oddball cast of supporting characters, and enough twists and turns to make viewers forget that two people had been slashed to death. Doubtless the combustible brew of race, sex, and celebrity would have wrought a media frenzy under any circumstances, but the saturation television coverage, live from L.A., ratcheted up the excitement. Not many people walked away from that show with a good feeling about American justice; a lot felt that the cameras in the courtroom were one of the main reasons for the fiasco.

Since OJ-TV, the momentum for cameras in federal courtrooms has screeched to halt. (As of 2001 all 50 states’ courtrooms permit cameras under most conditions.) The highest court in the land has certainly laid down the law. Although the folks at C-SPAN eye the Supreme Court the way the folks at E! eye the Kardashians, the nine justices seem to be the only people in America not ready for their close-up.

So far, the trial of the Boston marathon bomber has been in keeping with the gravity of the crime: a serious, disciplined, and somber proceeding. Lacking a video playback, the print reporters and television broadcasters have had to choose their words carefully to conjure the atmosphere and render the trauma. Many have responded with moving eloquence, as have the sketch artists, using their own rich palette.

Again too, the absence of cameras denies Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the cute one, he of the cover of Rolling Stone—more exposure in a media matrix that often collapses the distinction between celebrity and notoriety. Perhaps it even prevents more ditzy girls from posting mash notes on Facebook. It also means a respectful distance is kept from the wounded and shattered families.

Perhaps—especially “in this day and age,” when most everything is telecast on high-definition screens or streamed on smartphones—it may be good to keep certain spaces off-limits to the television eye. Wilderness areas are preserved from encroachments that change or pollute the landscape. The courtroom might be one democratic sphere where television, on some occasions, had best be barred from entry.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial.