Judicial system must accommodate public
When accused killer James Holmes appeared Monday in district court in Arapaho County to be formally charged with numerous counts of murder and attempted murder, there were no cameras to film the orange-haired suspect, as there had been a week ago.
There were also not supposed to be any cell phones, audio recorders, laptop computers or iPads at Monday’s hearing for the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring 58 others at an Aurora movie theater July 20.
Judge William Sylvester has apparently decided to turn back the clock on technology in hopes he can prevent Holmes’ case from turning into the kind of media circus that other high-profile cases have unfortunately become. But he should rethink that strategy and look for ways to deal with today’s technology.
Sylvester has also issued a gag order for those involved in the case and rejected media requests under Colorado’s Open Records Act for University of Colorado documents related to Holmes’ time at CU.
Concerns about a media barrage related to the Holmes case are certainly not without merit. Cases such as the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony murder trials demonstrate how excessive media coverage — in which legal and law enforcement participants, defendants and witnesses all play to the camera — can change the trajectory of a criminal case.
More recently, there is the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, in which politicians, pundits and talk show hosts have already convicted or exonerated suspect George Zimmerman, even though the case has not yet proceeded beyond bond hearings.
The courts in Arapaho County, we suspect, are like most of those throughout the country. They are well-equipped to deal with day-to-day criminal cases and even the big murder cases that draw statewide news coverage. But few judicial systems are prepared to deal with the media firestorm that accompanies a case which has garnered sensational international attention, as the Holmes case has.
Sylvester’s gag order and other attempts to clamp down on news reporting won’t halt the sort of rampant speculation that accompanies cases such as that of Holmes. Witness the reports that came from several news organizations last week saying Holmes had sent emails shortly before the Aurora killings to a University of Colorado psychologist, allegedly detailing much of his plan for committing mass murder. There has been no official word that such emails exist, even as authorities scramble to find where the leak came from.
Attempting to retreat into a 19th century world through gag orders, technology bans and limited access to public documents won’t prevent the 21st century from intruding. Judge Sylvester, and our judicial system in general, would do better if they looked for ways to accommodate current technology while protecting defendants’ rights and the integrity of the courts. We don’t pretend to know the magic fix, but we do know transparency always serves the public best.