By DAVE KITCHELL

Opinion Page Editor

A number of years ago, a Rhode Island trial chronicled a high-profile murder case that involved Klaus von Bulow.

It was a high-profile case because of the money involved in his marriage and the murder of his wife, but it was one that also drew some national attention because television cameras were permitted in a Rhode Island courtroom.

Over a decade ago, Americans probably had one of their least productive workplace years because the O.J. Simpson Trial, took up much of their summer months and was broadcast live on national television. Judge Lance Ito was seen so often on television one late night comedy show unleashed a troupe of look-alikes dubbed The Dancing Itos.

We interrupt this thought process to bring you a news bulletin: Indiana trial judges have agreed to an experimental program allowing cameras and recording devices in courtrooms.

If this sounds like another case of Indiana being behind the rest of the nation, it is not. Many states do not allow cameras or recording devices in courtrooms. The dignity of courtrooms in some places takes on the kind of aura for members of the bar that the Upper Room already has for Sunday school teachers and pastors.

I don’t know if Indiana will eventually open courtrooms to increased media coverage, but I won’t be surprised if it happens after a pilot project involving 18 judges ends next year. If Hoosiers can be dragged kicking and screaming into concepts such as Daylight Saving Time, allowing something else that happens in much of the rest of the country is not a stretch.

As a print journalist, I have to say that allowing tape recorders in courtrooms would be a plus in covering trials. Let’s face it, all proceedings are recorded anyway for the purpose of the legal record. The only thing omitted are comments stricken from the record by a judge. For accuracy sake, allowing tape recorders would be a good thing for all media.

As for radio coverage, it may not matter that much. Attorneys in cases are routinely interviewed in major trials after a proceeding. Opening courtrooms would allow some testimony to air that does not make it out on AM or FM now, but radio newscasts are generally so short, the impact is minimal.

Where a decision to open courtrooms to more media would have the greatest impact is with television. A decade or two ago, televising court proceedings in Indiana might have been greeted with the same fist that strikes supporters of class basketball. Times have changed. Opening courtrooms to television cameras could familiarize the public with a branch of government that spends millions of their tax dollars and reflects their society at its worst and some of its greatest needs.

In the 1960s, courts were solemn things in the public eye. Perry Mason took us inside the Los Angeles County court system long before “L.A. Law” got us there with Jimmy Smits did in the 1990s. Television has enabled the public to understand something about the justice component of society, and if you don’t think there is public interest in the justice system, check out the Nielsen Ratings for “CSI.” It may not be reality television, but televising court proceedings is as real as real gets.

By televising proceedings, Hoosiers might be able to understand why there are hundreds of people lodged in a downtown Logansport jail instead of the 50 or so that were crammed in one only a few years ago. It may help them understand why the state has farmed out so many prisoners to places like Logansport and Frankfort and why the Miami Correctional Facility near Bunker Hill had a sudden population spike once it opened. It explains why there are juvenile detention centers not only near downtown Logansport, but at the Logansport State Hospital campus. And it explains why local officials want to provide more services locally to keep youths with their families in local programs instead of warehousing them someplace where they are out of sight and out of mind.

As much as I love Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason episodes and the subtle reference to the district attorney, Hamilton Burger — a purposely tongue-in-cheek creation that meant legal hamburger for Perry — I appreciate other shows that destigmatized courts as places that are out of sight and out of mind. Where Joseph Wapner left off with “The People’s Court,” Judge Judy continues. Court TV is an interesting concept, but unless you’re watching a case from the Indiana Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, you won’t be watching Indiana cases on that network.

Cameras will make media stars of some attorneys, prosecutors and judges, not to mention witnesses who are experts in their field. It also has the potential to replace soap operas as the No. 1 afternoon draw in some communities where cable outlets may televise cases continually. Juvenile cases would probably not be aired, but the possibility that they might soon reminds me of an experiment former Cass Circuit Judge Don Leicht once tried. He took his cases on the road to teach young people what an actual court proceeding was like.

Now the Leicht of day for local courts may be replaced by the light of day that television can provide in raising an awareness of court and criminal issues.

Dave Kitchell may be contacted at 722-5000, Ext. 5150, or via e-mail at david.kitchell@pharostribune.com and his column appears on Wednesdays.

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