Televised Trials: Terror Compounds Debate ; Moussaoui and Court TV Favor Camera in Court. Critics Say Suspect May Get Forum to Promote Terror

Article excerpt

Will Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, become a TV star?

In a Virginia courtroom today, federal district judge Leonie Brinkema will hear arguments about that possibility when she considers Court TV's petition to broadcast Mr. Moussaoui's trial.

At issue is whether cameras in court serve to educate and inform the public or only distract participants and distort justice.

The role of cameras in court has been debated by lawyers from the 1935 kidnapping trial involving Charles Lindbergh's baby through the 2000 presidential showdown at the US Supreme Court.

This time, the questions come with an added twist: a defendant who allegedly represents a global terrorist movement.

Soapbox for hate?

Opponents of the Court TV petition worry that a televised trial would give Moussaoui a high-profile soapbox to promote an anti- American world view.

The channel says its single unobtrusive video camera would help Americans exercise what it calls a "constitutional right to observe the trial" of the only suspect indicted so far in the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history.

Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent, asserted in a court filing that the presence of cameras could "add an additional layer of protection" to ensure the trial is conducted fairly.

But Justice Department lawyers argue that cameras may scare away witnesses and intimidate jurors afraid of terrorist reprisals.

Even if such concerns were addressed, other critics of the proposal worry that putting the trial on TV could create the kind of circus-like atmosphere that surrounded O.J. Simpson's murder trial in 1995. In that case, the judge and attorneys faced relentless second-guessing from armchair lawyers.

Regardless of whether cameras appear, Moussaoui has already shown signs of defiance in the courtroom.

At his arraignment last week, Moussaoui said only, "In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead." (His lawyers entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.) He also remained seated while others in the courtroom stood for the judge's departure.

If convicted, Moussaoui could be sentenced to death for conspiring with Al Qaeda operatives to prepare the attacks. He was arrested in August on immigration charges while attending a Minnesota flight school.

No matter which side proves more persuasive in court today, Brinkema may actually have little say about whether the camera appears at the trial.

Permissive states

While almost every state allows cameras in some proceedings - and 37 permit them at criminal trials - a 56-year-old rule promulgated by judges and approved by Congress bars the filming of trials in federal court. …