In a move that will open a window onto federal court proceedings, US district courts in Massachusetts will participate in a controversial experiment allowing civil cases to be videotaped and aired.
US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf outlined details of the three-year program at a press conference yesterday. The District Court, one of 14 across the nation in the pilot program, will use its own cameras to record civil trials and hearings, then post those videos on the Internet hours afterward, when they can be viewed or downloaded for use on television or radio news programs.
The videotaped proceedings are set to start Oct. 17 in Boston and Springfield courthouses. Worcester’s federal court is expected to start later this year once cameras are installed, officials said.
“It’s a way that the public holds government officials and attorneys accountable,’’ Wolf said. “This is part of a bigger judicial and cultural issue.’’
Recordings will not be allowed for criminal cases. For civil cases, lawyers for the defense and prosecution, as well as the judge, must consent to the recording. Cameras will not be trained on jury members.
Even with those safeguards, the decision to allow video feeds from federal court cases is controversial.
Wolf said many judges in US District Court believe video coverage leads to witness intimidation and a media circus in high-profile cases.
“Different judges have different degrees of enthusiasm here,’’ Wolf acknowledged.
Nancy Gertner, who stepped down as a federal judge last month and now teaches at Harvard Law School, said she supports the program for its potential to educate people - especially young people - about federal court proceedings. In 2009, Gertner pushed unsuccessfully to allow cameras to record proceedings in a lawsuit against a Boston University student accused of downloading music illegally.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,’’ Gertner said. “The public in 2011 needs digital images, as well as a transcript and a physical presence in the courtroom.’’
Gertner said wide use of cameras in state courts in Massachusetts, where she once argued cases, shows the federal pilot program is warranted.
“As a lawyer, I participated in trials that were televised, and it was a gift to be able to go back home at night and watch what had gone on,’’ Gertner said. “It was a gift to meet people in the street who knew details about the case.’’
But Christo Lassiter, a professor of law and criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, said the presence of cameras in a courtroom can lead judges, lawyers, defendants, and jurors to behave differently.
Lassiter has published several journal articles about the closely followed O.J. Simpson murder trial of 1995. That trial, he said, shows how judges and lawyers can act with more flair and bombast hoping to entertain people watching the proceedings.
“If you’re trying your case to the world at large as opposed to trying it for a jury, all the protections of a trial get eroded there,’’ Lassiter said.
But Marjorie Cohn, a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego who studies the effects of cameras in the courtroom, said it is important for judges to assess case-by-case whether individuals will be negatively affected by the presence of recording devices.
“It’s a whole different thing when you bring a camera into the courtroom,’’ Cohn said, “because then the whole world is right there in the room.’’
Federal district courts have been discussing having cameras in courtrooms since 2009, Wolf said. Another pilot program was started in 1991, but negative results prompted officials to end it in 1993.
Massachusetts is the only state in the Northeast to be involved with the experiment. Other participants include US District Courts in California, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, and Alabama.
Massachusetts state courts have permitted camera coverage since the early 1980s, said Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the state court system. The courts allow one video camera and one still camera from a news agency to document proceedings. That footage is shared among news agencies, who rotate photographers.
“The media make their own arrangements for sharing pool coverage, and it has worked very well,’’ Kenney said. “There have been very few issues with cameras in courts over the years.’’
The decision to allow cameras comes in an era of increasing media access in courtrooms. Reporters now disseminate Tweets from high-profile cases, providing a real-time play-by-play of the actions, facial expressions, and clothing choices of major players.
Yesterday’s announcement could affect news coverage of current high-profile cases.
While the prosecution of James “Whitey’’ Bulger will not be recorded because it is a criminal case, civil cases brought against the gangster by families of his alleged victims might be taped and aired.
Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org