Whitey Bulger Trial Points to the Value of Cameras in Federal Courtrooms

Whatever justification the ban once had, it now rests on the insulting notion that you're not mature enough to handle what goes on in the courtrooms you pay for.


A week later, I'm still bitter about missing the most fascinating and colorful trial of the decade, the racketeering case against James "Whitey" Bulger, the Irish mobster who terrorized South Boston for two decades, before evading capture for another 16 years. Last Monday, a federal jury found Bulger guilty of all but one of 33 racketeering counts against him.

The Bulger story represents "the worst case of corruption in the history of the F.B.I.," says former Boston federal prosecutor Michael D. Kendall, "a multigenerational, systematic alliance with organized crime, where the F.B.I. was actively participating in the murders of government witnesses."

But unless you're from Boston, you probably missed it. That's largely due to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53, which since 1946 has barred "broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom."

Most states have allowed cameras for decades, and the evidence suggests they've had positive effects. Whatever justification the federal ban once had, today it rests on the insulting notion that you're not mature enough to handle what goes on in the courtrooms you pay for.

Admittedly, some of my bitterness stems from the base motivation of wanting to see the show: to hear Patricia Donahue, the widow of a Bulger victim, shout: "You're a coward," and Whitey's snarl: "Do what yas want with me." Or this exchange with FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick: "Q: 'Have any of your medications affected your memory?' A: 'Not that I recall.' "

Still, as the Boston Herald's Margery Eagan insists, the Bulger story—where it's hard to tell the gangsters from the G-Men—is "a civics lesson worthy of us all," a "teachable moment" about federal corruption. Alas, our government conspired with Boston's Irish Mafia for 20 years and all we got was this lousy sketch.

The camera ban treats "taxpayers … like 10-year-olds," Eagan argues, and for no good reason. In 1991, the Federal Judicial Center evaluated a pilot program allowing cameras in the trial courts of six districts. They reported "small or no effects of camera presence on [the] participants, … courtroom decorum, or the administration of justice."

In a 2010 article, federal judge Alex Kozinski noted that "judges overwhelmingly believed that cameras in the courtroom helped to educate the public about the courts."

The evidence from the states is much the same, the FJC concluded in 1994: "Most jurors … indicated they were not distracted or were distracted only at first" by cameras. Per Kozinski, "once a trial gets under way," participants "tend to forget the cameras are there."

Judge Kozinski's ready for the "O.J." objection: "You can't talk about cameras in the courtroom without talking about The Juice," he writes, whose clown-show trial in 1995 derailed the movement for federal-court transparency.

But blaming the cameras is shooting the messenger, Kozinski says; Without them, "dollars to doughnuts the jury would still have voted to acquit, although the public wouldn't be in nearly as good a position" to judge the verdict or "evaluate the process that led the jury to reach it."

As it happens, the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be held in the same federal courthouse as the Bulger trial.

In 2003, federal judge William Young gave convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid a marvelous dressing down: "You are not an enemy combatant," he told Reid, you're a "species of criminal," and "no big deal." Wouldn't it be nice to have that on video?

I suspect if the Tsarnaev trial were televised, we'd see more evidence that these guys aren't criminal masterminds, but, in the words of Uncle Ruslan, pathetic "losers," and hardly a justification for massive, secret surveillance programs.

That could provide a valuable civics lesson as well.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.


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  1. If you want to make trials more enjoyable, require all judges, prosecutors and attorneys to wear fluffy bunny slippers.

    1. Three words: Trial by Combat

      1. While wearing fluffy bunny slippers.

      2. I can’t think of trial by combat without thinking of aptly-named William of Eu.

        In January 1096 in Salisbury, William was formally accused and challenged to trial by battle. He was defeated by Geoffrey Baynard, former High Sheriff of Yorkshire. Tradition condemned the loser to blinding and castration. Count William died as a result of this mutilation.

        Now, that’s entertainment.

        1. my co-worker’s sister makes $66/hr on the laptop. She has been fired for ten months but last month her pay was $21488 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more.. http://WWW.CNN13.COM

        2. This book is pretty entertaining too. Lots of good details, yet well-paced. If you like medieval history it’s a very good read.

    2. What’s wrong with those gay little wigs the British wear? The judges, I mean.

      1. Too limey.

  2. Trials aren’t spectacle and they aren’t about appeasing the masses. They’re about justice.

    (No, I wasn’t able to type that with a straight face.)

  3. I we had cameras, we could have seen exactly what a sleazy ambulance-chaser John Edwards was.

    1. That trial was fucking annoying, shut down that whole block, you couldn’t even use the sidewalk on the other side of the street from the courthouse.

      1. On the other hand it did give the area a great lift in coffee and donut sales for a little while.

        1. True, and increased patrons at Stumblestiltskin’s, a bar a couple hundred feet away.

          1. I was only there once, being more a UNCG area drinker. I wonder if the Rhino Times people trolled any of the MSM newsies while the trial was going on. Don’t remember anything stunning, but hard to imagine Hammer letting the opportunity go totally untaken.

            1. Haha! I think he wrote an op-ed about working out deals with a few journalists (probably the non-tools) to use their office. The Rhino Times…a decent rag imo and it led to me discovering the Carolina Journal.

  4. When the framers did stuff, they didn’t foresee new stuff.

  5. I suspect if the Tsarnaev trial were televised, we’d see more evidence that these guys aren’t criminal masterminds, but, in the words of Uncle Ruslan, pathetic “losers,” and hardly a justification for massive, secret surveillance programs.

    I suspect that this is of the main reasons that there won’t be any live transmissions from such trials.

  6. Oh, slightly OT:

    Was watching some debate on Bill Maher (via youtube, ’cause I don’t watch his show on HBO) with SE Cupp (who I presume was the token crackpot) with some guy I didn’t reckanize, Michael Moore and Zach Galifianakis debate guns. Well, Maher, Moore the other guy and Galifianakis (who just occasionally applauded when Maher said stuff) triple teamed Cupp (and not in a good way) while Cupp did an exemplary job of defending the right to bear arms. Moore went to the standard leftard trope about keeping our right to bear arms at muskets and cap’n ball.

    My response to that has always been, “Sure, if the cops go to muskets and cap’n ball, you have an argument.

    No big revelation… just had to get that off my chest. Because it was getting hard to breathe.

    1. I stopped watching Real Time with Bill Maher after he claimed “cooks and servers will never be replaced by robots” in some stupid diatribe about minimum wage. I tweeted a link to restaurants in Asia doing exactly that and called him an ignorant blowhard douche. Oh, and he also said he supports policies most libertarians disagree with because he doesn’t want to be stepping over lepers in the street and see skeletons shitting in a river. Almost his exact fucking words.

      It’s like he went in the opposite direction of Dennis Miller after 9/11, back when they both claimed to be pretty libertarian.

    2. triple teamed Cupp (and not in a good way)

      Help me here, I’m not seeing a good way.

      1. triple teamed Cupp (and not in a good way)

        Help me here, I’m not seeing a good way.

        It’s probably the porn filters. Try googling it once you get home from work, you’ll see it then.

        1. “Three guys, one Cupp”? Yeesh, teh interwebz get scarier every day. Especially if it involves Michael Moore.

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