The videotaping of police interrogations, which has become widespread, defends the rights of suspects and the reputation of police officers.
Defendants who are being filmed are less likely to get badgered into signing confessions they don’t believe or have requests for a lawyer ignored. Officers cannot be accused of misconduct that isn’t backed up by the videotape.
The other thing that gets protected by videotaping is public trust in the criminal justice process. When the public can see that officers are following the law and see that criminal verdicts are backed up by videotaped statements, that raises the level of trust in law enforcement.
But secrecy undermines trust as much as transparency bolsters it, which is why we object to the new procedure being followed in Warren County Court in the way defendants’ statements are handled.
In the past, when defendants were arraigned or indicted on felony charges, prosecutors would turn over any defendant statements to defense lawyers, as required, and the statements would be filed with the court. Since court records are public, these statements, whether written or videotaped, would be available for public review.
Our court reporter, Don Lehman, has many times over the years checked court files for particular cases and used excerpts from defendants’ statements in his stories.
Unfortunately, Warren County Court, under the direction of Judge John Hall, has changed longstanding procedure and begun keeping defendants’ statements secret. Prosecutors still turn the statements over to the defense, but no longer file them with the court.
Now, the statements cannot be reviewed by reporters or any other member of the public. Now, instead of bolstering public confidence in the criminal justice system, the handling of these statements is undermining it.
A recent letter from Hall to Lehman, written to justify the change in procedure, fails to reassure us. Hall acknowledges “the right of the public to be informed of criminal cases in its courts,” but says that must be balanced against “a defendant’s right to a fair trial.”
But there has been no balancing in Hall’s court, just a ban on public access to defendants’ videotaped statements.
For balancing to take place, Hall would have to follow a process that considered specifics — whether a particular defendant’s videotaped statements, if released, could unfairly prejudice potential jurors.
He would have to consider, among other things, how many people would be likely to watch the video and whether people who hadn’t watched it could be easily found to serve as jurors.
Readers may remember the Alexander West case, which received a tremendous amount of front-page attention in this paper before West’s trial this past spring. West had been driving a boat at night on Lake George that smashed into and over another boat, killing a little girl. He was convicted of several crimes.
Despite all the attention the case received before the trial, lawyers were able to find a suitable jury, with jurors who swore they could be impartial, in a single day.
In most cases, allowing public access to videotaped statements, even if newspapers like The Post-Star post the videos on their websites, will not taint the jury pool. Some people don’t read their local paper, unfortunately, and many do not watch the videos.
We can imagine videos so inflammatory that withholding them could be justified — if a defendant attacked the officer questioning him, for example.
But the assumption should be that defendants’ videotaped statements belong with the other public records in the court files. When exceptions are sought, judges should demand that standards be met to justify the secrecy.
That is exactly what Washington County Judge Kelly McKeighan did a couple of months ago, after a prosecutor had a defendant’s statements sealed. McKeighan reviewed the decision, decided the statements did not meet the standard and ordered them unsealed.
Lehman has been seeking the videotaped statements of Bryan Redden, who is accused of killing a mother and her 4-year-old daughter in August in Glens Falls. But access has been blocked because of the change in Warren County Court procedures.
In his letter, Hall wrote, “A judge has extraordinary powers, including the option of closing his/her courtroom to the public to preserve a fair trial.”
A judge does have a lot of power, but it should be exercised in a reasonable way. Various rights must be balanced in these decisions, but the public’s right to know what is taking place in the courts is fundamental to our criminal justice system.
If Judge Hall or any judge is going to keep secret information that has routinely been public, he should have to justify his decision with specifics. That has not happened in the Redden case, and unless Hall can do that, he should order Redden’s statements added to the court files immediately.