Judge one-ups lawyers’ request to bar livestream of Sanford trial
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Nearly everyone who wants to see justice happen in the trial of the man accused of killing a popular University of Wisconsin professor and her husband will, in fact, not be allowed to see it.
In a decision where she wrote “television media have been capable of accurately and effectively reporting on jury trials without full live recordings” (i.e. livestreaming), Judge Ellen Berz took it a step further and barred the media from bringing cameras into the courtroom to bear witness when the homicide case against Khari Sanford begins.
Her decision extends beyond the prosecutor’s and defense’s request to ban livestreaming and, instead, went ahead and banned all video or audio streaming or recording. She described the argument that the public not being able to allow to hear testimony and arguments by lawyers and witnesses in their own words “a straw man created (by news outlets) out of whole cloth.”
Combined, Thursday’s decision denies anyone who is unable to squeeze into the courtroom the ability to understand much of the tone and spirit of the witnesses’ words. The trial is expected to last two weeks.
Those witnesses and possibly Sanford himself will be testifying about the events surrounding the deaths of Dr. Beth Potter and Robin Carre. In March 2020, the victims were discovered by joggers in UW’s Arboretum. Carre, 57, was pronounced dead at the scene, while Potter, 52, was taken to a local hospital where she later died.
NBC15 News was not alone in its request to livestream and record the trial and proceedings. WMTV teamed up with competitors WISC and WKOW to explain the importance of being allowed to record the events of the trial. The three Madison news stations were also backed by the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
“While we respect the court’s decision, we are disappointed in it given the long and successful history in this state of televising trials so that the public can monitor and understand the criminal justice system,” said Leita Walker, an attorney from Ballard Spahr, who represents WMTV/Gray Television and the media coalition.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (WFOIC) President Bill Lueders pointed out that in issuing her ruling, Berz not only rejected the stations’ requests, she went beyond that to include things not even asked for. He also pointed to several recent, high-profile trials, all of which were easily viewable for the public to see.
“We have not in the past had secret courts in Wisconsin, and there’s no good reason to start now. Derek Chauvin, Kyle Rittenhouse, and the three men who killed Ahmaud Aubrey all received fair trials that were live-streamed,” he said in a statement responding to the verdict, adding that Sanford’s trial “should also be allowed to take place in the light of day.”
In addition to a four-decade-old state law allowing cameras in a courtroom, Dane Co. has precedent for also live-streaming in a high-profile case – a precedent from just a few months ago: the trial of Chandler Halderson.
RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley noted that journalists in Madison – and across the state – have repeatedly shouldered the responsibility of covering such trials well and he echoed how Berz’ ruling extends well beyond three local television news stations.
“Unfortunately, the judge in this case made a draconian decision which will harm not only the parties involved but the general public, which has a legitimate need to see and hear what happens in the courtroom,” Shelley said. “It is only through full transparency that justice can truly be served.”
The WFOIC’s stated mission is to be an organization that “seeks to safeguard access to information that citizens must have to act responsibly in a free and democratic society,” according to its website. RTDNA, meanwhile, describes itself as the world’s largest professional organization for broadcast and digital journalists.
Lueders also expressed his concerns that the Berz decision may have affected matters extending beyond the law.
“Her decision is openly hostile to the press and has the feel of being retributive against the media outlets that dared to question her bizarre decision to limit their ability to show more than ten seconds of a prior court proceeding,” he said.
In her ruling, Berz also addressed the Jan. 2022 Halderson trial, where she focused on the effects of livestreaming, saying that witnesses were “maligned, berated, harassed, insulted, and threatened.” She accused people watching the trial of leaving comments akin to a World Wrestling Federation bout on social media livestreams, one of the multiple livestreaming platforms where the trial was available and included some examples of comments and their effects cited by attorneys.
“No defendant, victim, witness, attorney, or court personnel should be subjected to such disrespect, trauma, and abuse,” she wrote, adding that Wisconsin laws provide guarantees to witnesses and victims “[t]o be treated with fairness, dignity and respect for his or her privacy…” Her repeated criticisms did not address or acknowledge other streaming platforms that did not have comments. For example, the livestream on NBC15.com does not provide space for comments.
She also expressed concerns about jurors or witnesses watching the hours of livestreams of the trial and the impact that could have upon them. She continued that a century of coverage by newspapers, radio, and television reporters for centuries have covered trials and made their coverage widely available.
Berz’ decision to keep the public, through its local television stations, from seeing or hearing what happens during the case came without the hearing the stations and the associated organizations requested. She rejected the need for that hearing in the first two paragraphs of her 26-page ruling, writing that the media coalition was unable to show how they would be able to change her mind.
At an earlier motions hearing, the judge invited the stations and organizations, as well as the prosecution and defense – both of whom opposed livestreaming but did not object to cameras in the courtroom – to submit written statements on what limitations should be allowed.
WMTV and its coalition are still reviewing the opinion and determining if there will be an appeal.
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