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Minnesota's courtroom doors open a little wider to cameras

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Minnesotans may be seeing more of the state's courtrooms, now that a pilot project allowing cameras in some criminal hearings is in effect.

On Tuesday a project that had been in place for civil cases was extended to certain criminal hearings, the St. Cloud Times reports.

The change was made possible by a Minnesota Supreme Court order handed down in August. The project keeps several restrictions on the use of cameras and recorders.

For example, cameras will be allowed only in hearings held after a conviction or guilty plea and never when a jury is present. They're also prohibited from cases involving juveniles, domestic violence or sex crimes. Witnesses can be photographed only if they've given written permission.

The first case

WCCO-TV was the ice-breaker on Tuesday when a camera crew attended a sentencing hearing in Hennepin County for Tania Harris.

Harris, 18, had pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon for attacking a woman with a kitchen knife in Robbinsdale last spring.

WCCO says as its cameras rolled, Harris told Judge Elizabeth Cutter she knows she needs anger management counseling, adding "I will own up to that and I take full responsibility for what I’ve done.”

The judge said the case was one of the most difficult she'd had, and sentenced Harris to 72 days in the workhouse rather than prison time.

Harris' attorney told WCCO the presence of cameras in the courtroom "will definitely take some getting used to."

Arguments for and against cameras

Media groups have been asking for cameras to be allowed in Minnesota courts for years. When the state Supreme Court authorized a study in 2013, attorney Mark Anfinson applauded the move, saying increased media coverage will give citizens a better understanding of the court system.

But in his dissent to the August Supreme Court order, Justice Alan Page wrote he sees little benefit to allowing cameras in court. Page, who has since retired from the court, said cameras could make witnesses nervous or distracted.

Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall expressed similar concerns to the St. Cloud Times, saying a victim who fears their image may wind up on television or in a newspaper may not report a crime.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says that since a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed states to adopt their own rules for cameras in courts, all 50 states have done so but the policies vary widely from state to state.

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