Tales from the Morgue: Reporters in courtrooms

Once upon a time, reporters covering a trial were permitted to site in front of the bar in courtrooms in Pima County. The idea was that they could better cover the trial if they could hear and see what was going on.

That ended 50 years ago.

There is mention in the following article of the Sam Sheppard case. Some history:

Sam Sheppard was convicted of murdering his wife in Cleveland, Ohio. Because of newspaper and television news coverage, much of which convicted him before he even went to trial according to many online accounts, there was difficulty in impaneling an impartial jury.

Sheppard was eventually acquitted in a new trial years later.

While this was several years before reporters were pushed behind the courtroom bar, it had a bearing.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Thursday, Oct. 10, 1968:

By Judge Robert Roylston

Participation Of Newsmen Curbed In Court Trials


Robert O. Roylston, chief judge of Pima County Superior Courts, yesterday restricted press participation during all future trials to the spectator section of the courtroom.

The judge posted the notice saying: “…hereafter, no persons shall be allowed in front of the railing in courtrooms except attorneys, litigants, law clerks, and court attaches.”

Spectators cannot always hear what is being said, therefore, the new decree effectively limits the ability of news reporters to properly hear and observe proceedings.

Asked if any specific incident triggered the decision, Roylston said: “No, it’s something we’ve been concerned about for a long time, especially after the Sam Sheppard case, but we just sort of let it slide until now.”

He said the decision was one made only after the other judges agreed unanimously at the monthly meeting last Monday. Two judges, William C. Frey and John P. Collins, were not present.

Roylston said some judges fear that some criminal cases may be reversed based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Sheppard case in June 1966. The high court ruled that the trial judge in that case erred in allowing the press to sit in front of the bar.

The vase laid down many restrictions on the press and now is regarded as the landmark case on fair trial and free press discussions. In the high court’s ruling Dr. Sheppard was freed from prison on a conviction of murdering his wife in a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb in 1954.

Roylston said that in most other courts of the country the press is not allowed inside the railing, and that historically, the privilege is extended to all lawyers upon their admission to the bar. It comes with their licenses to practice law in a state.

Spectators often cannot hear what is said by the witnesses, lawyers, and the judge, despite the fact that judges and witnesses use microphones. Throughout much of any trial attorneys have their backs turned to the audience, thereby sometimes muffling what is said and barring any possibility of observing of lip movements.

The high court said in the Sheppard opinion that the press “…guards against the miscarriage of justice by subjecting the police, prosecutors and judicial processes to extensive public scrutiny and criticism…”

But, it said further, “…the judge should have adopted stricter rules governing the use of the courtroom by newsmen…

“…they (the press) certainly should not have been placed inside the bar. Furthermore, the judge should have more closely regulated the conduct of newsmen in the courtroom.”

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