WINNIPEG — The public will get a front-row seat for a murder trial verdict as Manitoba launches a pilot project that will allow media cameras in select court hearings.
A TV camera will be allowed into court Wednesday to hear the fate of Cassandra Knott, who is charged with the second-degree murder of her husband. In her trial last year, Knott pleaded not guilty because she said the 2011 stabbing was self-defence.
This will be the first time a camera has been allowed to broadcast a Manitoba criminal court proceeding. Until now, hand-held cameras have not even been allowed in the building.
“While courts are open to the public, few members have the opportunity to attend those courts in person,” justice officials said in a statement. “Most people rely on the media to tell them what happens. As a result, the media play an important role with regard to informing the public about the operation of the courts and the open-court principle.”
A camera will also be allowed into the Court of Appeal on April 30 for the case of Denis Labossiere, who was found guilty of killing his parents and brother in 2005.
More details are expected when the province’s chief judges hold a press conference to roll out the initiative today.
Brandon defence lawyer Bob Harrison said he would approve of cameras in the courtroom but only on a “limited basis.”
“You certainly wouldn’t want it for sexual offences or certain offences involving children because … privacy is important for that,” he said.
Some cases are quite delicate and knowing they could be on camera might have a negative impact on people who are asked to testify in court, Harrison said.
However, broadcasting footage from a court case might give people a better understanding of how the Canadian justice system works.
“Sometimes I don’t think they understand why a decision is made by the court, and I think if they could hear the reasons why, they would probably have a better understanding of why it was appropriate in that case,” Harrison said.
It is not yet known if Brandon courtrooms will be part of this pilot project.
Cameras have long been allowed in U.S. courtrooms, but Canadian courts have been more reluctant.
“I’d hate to see it where it becomes sensationalized like in the States ... where it gets carried away into almost like a Hollywood script,” Harrison said.
Some argue allowing cameras would make the courts more transparent, but others worry cameras would have a chilling effect on witnesses and turn the halls of justice into “media circuses.”
While some provinces have allowed cameras into appeal courts, it is unusual for cameras to be present for a verdict.
Manitoba justice officials have been grappling with the idea for years. The province’s chief judges struck a committee in 2009 to discuss the idea and make recommendations.
Chief judge at the time, Ray Wyant, said it was time to open up courts to cameras because “people have a right to know” what goes on.
“There is nothing secretive about what happens in court,” he said. “Technology dominates our lives right now and yet it seems like one of the last bastions of our democratic process that isn’t embracing technology in that sense is the court system.”
Manitoba’s governing NDP has also argued for media cameras to be allowed to broadcast some proceedings. In 2009, then-justice minister Dave Chomiak said the “time has come.”
“We probably should have done it a long time ago,” he said. “It’s only a question of when and how we do it.”
Ontario started televising cases from its Court of Appeal in 2007. Provinces such as British Columbia and Nova Scotia allow cameras in some courtrooms with prior permission of the court.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, cameras are allowed into a courtroom up to the time the judge enters. In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld a Quebec court regulation that restricts cameras to designated areas of the courthouse.
Supreme Court of Canada proceedings are televised and dozens of Canadian public inquiries have been broadcast.
» The Canadian Press, with files from Jillian Austin
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 15, 2014