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Cameras build trust in Chauvin trial

The eyes of the world are on Minneapolis.

On its citizens, as they react to the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of murdering George Floyd last year in a killing that sparked riots locally and protests globally. But also — finally — on one of its courtrooms. For the first time in state history, the trial is being livestreamed and available for Minnesotans — and the world — to see.

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The coronavirus is partly the reason for livestreaming.

The public and news media have a right to witness court cases, especially those with such consequence, and sensible social-distancing protocols significantly restricted courtroom access for the Chauvin trial. There’s also the need for transparency, the currency of trust in any endeavor.

It’s about making available “an instrument of government which is for many people very opaque,” Professor Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer.

Viewing the judicial process can increase confidence in the jury’s verdict. “I think it’s important for [citizens] to see what’s happening,” Kirtley said. “I would say that about any deliberation. But given the very strong emotional reactions that many in our community, if not communities around the country and even the world have had, it would be very difficult for those communities to accept the verdict if they did not know what kind of evidence was presented that led up to it.”

Trust in the system can compound throughout the community, Leita Walker, a partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm, told an editorial writer.

“Our hope is by livestreaming this people are able to watch it and see how the justice system works, that it builds faith in that system, and it has sort of a cathartic effect on our community,” said Walker, a media law attorney who represented a coalition of media outlets, including the Star Tribune, that advocated for livestreaming the trial.

Until now, Minnesota has been known for its restrictive cameras-in-the-courtroom policies and only allowed audio and video recordings after a guilty plea or a guilty verdict.

“So far the audiovisual coverage of the Chauvin trial has been no big deal, and I hope that policymakers in Minnesota and elsewhere see that and realize that we can and should provide that as a matter of course,” Walker said after jury selection and the first day of the trial. “It shouldn’t only be something we do during a pandemic.”

The policymakers who made livestreaming this possible, including Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette and Judge Peter Cahill, deserve credit. Without any apparent compromises to the gravity of the proceedings, livestreaming is allowing the world to witness the system of justice designed to give every defendant a fair trial.

Their example should guide decision-making on transparency in future court proceedings.

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As Walker explained, “When journalists can collaborate with the court to show the public how the judicial process works, everyone wins from that.”

— Star Tribune

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