Oregon Trails: Court Cameras

GRANTS PASS, Ore.--In 1988 coverage of criminal cases in southern Oregon courtrooms underwent a big change when Josephine County was one of the first in our area to allow cameras in the courtroom. It was

Posted: Apr 27, 2015 4:04 PM
Updated: Oct 19, 2017 1:38 PM

GRANTS PASS, Ore.--In 1988 coverage of criminal cases in southern Oregon courtrooms underwent a big change when Josephine County was one of the first in our area to allow cameras in the courtroom. It was the aggravated murder retrial of Donald Eugene Dickson. And we were there. Newswatch 12 was the first in our area to have a camera in a local courtroom. Dickson had been convicted in November of 1981 of the brutal beating death of the owner of the Alibi Tavern in Grants Pass.

After several state appeals, it appeared that Dickson's case was not likely to be overturned. Former Grants Pass attorney Kim Jordan defended Dickson in his first trial and was appointed to handle the retrial.

In an interview then he commented that, "it went to the Oregon Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court of Oregon, and frankly I thought that was going to be the end of it. And then, Mr. Dickson's case was taken up by the public defender’s office--the Federal public defender’s office in Portland-- uh, and went through the Federal system and I lost track of it completely after it passed out of the Oregon system. And I am surprised that it is back, and frankly am a little surprised that I have the case the second time!"

Some of the original witnesses had died since the first trial, which I covered as a radio reporter. And now we were there with a camera. But we were only allowed 15 minutes of video a day, with the cameral focused on one spot, and with a court clerk starting and stopping the camera. Much more stringent than today. The one rule that still applies is the prohibition against the filming of jurors, both inside and outside the courthouse.

Trial Court Administrator Kirk Brust says, "of course the filming of jurors, or potential jurors--voir dire process-- is not allowed, at all ever. Other than that it comes down to whether or not they're on or off the record. I supposed the camera could be considered a tool but I think they have a moral and legal responsibility not to use that unjustly to influence the trial."

On the other hand, the first camera in a courtroom in our area also came from Newswatch 12 when a Siskiyou county man, Jerry Gilmore, was accused of illegally dumping toxic wastes from a printed circuits plant set up in an old slaughter house in Gazelle, California. In this case there was no prohibition against shooting video of the jury. Gilmore was later convicted of the charges against him and the operation, known as World Circuits, was shut down.

Ironically, courtroom cameras first showed up in Federal courts. Likely the first was the trial of gangster George "machine gun" Kelly, in Oklahoma City, in 1934. Banks of newsreel cameras recorded the trial of Kelly and his accomplices, who were accused of the kidnap of a wealthy Oklahoma oil man. The local connection to that case is that some of the ransom money was found in the woodshed of a house in southwest Medford. Today, Federal courts do not allow cameras, and Oregon and California state courts do. The reverse of what it was before world war two.

Kirk Brust says, "I would think that the defendant, much like anyone else might have an opinion of being broadcast, and whether that would impact their decision to go to trial or not, could potentially impact. Again, all defendants are presumed to be innocent until or unless they're found guilty. But not everyone's comfortable in front of a camera."

The murder retrial of Donald Eugene Dickson broke new ground with cameras in the courtroom. It wasn't until a couple years later that Jackson county authorized cameras in the courtroom, and sometime after that before they were allowed in Klamath county courtrooms.

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