Video and still cameras were abruptly removed from the Kelly Thomas trial Monday after officials from the Orange County district attorney's office complained to the judge that news organizations wouldn’t give them live pool feeds of the trial.
Susan Schroeder, chief of staff for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, said there was an earlier court ruling “that we [the DA’s office] were part of the pool” with rights to access the videos.
But Rick Terrell, executive director of the Radio and Television News Association of Southern California, said, “There’s nothing in [California court rules] that says the news media must give its raw material to anyone other than another news organization.”
Opening arguments began Monday in the trial of former Fullerton police officers charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the beating death of Kelly Thomas.
The normal procedure in such a high-profile case is for videographers and photographers from one TV station and one newspaper to be allowed in the courtroom and feed video, audio and still photos to all other news organizations. Reporters for the stations as well as newspaper and online news media still sit in the courtroom and take notes.
In the Thomas case, the live audio and video feed was available to 15 to 20 regional and other television stations, including one based in Japan, said Terrell. The TV pool was a crew from KCBS-TV (Channel 2) and KCAL-TV (Channel 9), and The Orange County Register provided the pool still photographs.
The pool feed covered Rackauckas’ opening arguments and those of defense attorney John Barnett, who represents former Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos.
But before defense attorney Michael Schwartz could deliver his opening arguments on behalf of former Fullerton police Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, a bailiff ordered the cameras out of the courtroom. Judge William Froeberg gave the order, saying that if the DA’s office was denied access to the pool feeds, then all video and audio equipment had to leave, according to Schroeder.
Terrell, who was the pool coordinator and has been the news association executive director for 10 years, said no other district attorney in the Los Angeles region has tried to gain access to pool feeds.
“I’ve never experienced this in any other jurisdiction and neither has any other members of our board of directors,” he said.
To provide the pool feed to the DA, he said, would be “a violation of journalistic ethics” that separate news organizations from the government agencies they cover.
“Journalism ethics?” said Schroeder. “Can you please quote that I was rolling my eyes at ‘journalistic ethics'?”
But Terrell said to give the information to the DA would create an “unfair playing field,” providing the DA video that the defense didn’t have and potentially giving the district attorney the ability to leisurely review proceedings and use that analysis to improve his case.
“We don’t hand over our raw materials,” he said. “They should know. For some reason, they’re pushing the envelope.”
He said the district attorney officials successfully made a similar request several months ago when they went to a technician manning a TV truck and got access to a pool feed. After that, said Terrell, the association made sure that everyone at all stations likely to become a pool knew they weren’t to give out the feed.
Raw TV footage is different from the videos of city council and board of supervisor meetings that commonly are carried on cable stations. Those live videos typically use set camera angles that show the principals up close only when they are speaking. The unedited TV trial footage also periodically shows the defendants in the case as Rackauckas is making his presentation.
KFI radio reported that the following happened during a break in court proceedings:
RTNA board of directors member and KFI News reporter Steve Gregory noticed someone recording opening statements Monday by DA Rackaukas and John Barnett, a defense attorney for one of the cops accused in the case.
The man, whom the RTNA later learned was not a member of the media, was told to unplug from the feed.
The person downloading the feed from pool equipment outside the courthouse next to a TV truck turned out to be a member of the press staff in the DA’s office. The DA’s office later posted Rackauckas’ opening statements on its web site.
Gregory said Tuesday that before RTNA attorneys could get to Santa Ana, Froeberg apparently held a non-public hearing on the issue with only the DA and defense attorneys, but no one from the media.
Under the pool agreement that existed going into Monday’s hearing, the TV and still photo pools were scheduled to cover opening statements, closing arguments, the verdict and sentencing.
Terrell said association attorneys are discussing what to do next.
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