San Diego Tribune Editorial
January 3, 2002

Televise Terror Trial

In one of the most wrenching ordeals in our history, millions of Americans watched on live television as the World Trade Center Towers collapsed, one after the other, claiming thousands of innocent lives. Why, then, should Americans be denied television coverage of the trial of the alleged terrorist charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden to carry out the suicide attacks?

Zacarias Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is the only person indicted thus far for crimes directly tied to the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults. He is accused of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, including mass murder, air piracy and other violent crimes. At his arraignment yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., not far from the Pentagon, a barely coherent Moussaoui pleaded innocent to the six counts against him, four of which carry a potential death sentence.

President Bush already has decided Moussaoui will stand trial in a civilian court, rather than in a secret military tribunal. That means the proceedings, starting with jury selection on Sept. 30, will be officially open to the public, with print reporters covering every move in the courtroom.

As a practical matter, though, only a tiny handful of people will actually witness the trial, because television and still cameras are barred in most circumstances from federal courts. Court TV has filed a motion with U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, in whose courtroom Moussaoui appeared yesterday, asking that "a single, silent unobtrusive camera" be allowed to broadcast the trial.

There are strong arguments on both sides of the question of televising federal trials. In this particular case, however, the enormous value of allowing live coverage would outweigh the potential drawbacks.

We concede from the outset that the presence of a TV camera might cause some actors in the courtroom to play to the viewing public around the globe, to grandstand, to make irrelevant appeals to world opinion. Such showboating could compromise the decorum of the proceedings -- even though Judge Brinkema certainly has shown no indication she would tolerate a media circus in her courtroom.

But a televised trial also would demonstrate to the world that the U.S. judicial system is both open and fair. It would illustrate not only to Americans, but also to Muslims around the globe, that American justice is firmly rooted in an even-handed examination of the facts, starting with a presumption of innocence and concluding with an impartial jury deciding the outcome, subject to appeal in higher courts. If, in the end, TV coverage is permitted, Judge Brinkema will have an obligation to exercise a strong hand in order to ensure that it does not distort the proceedings.

Under the exacting rules by which federal trials are conducted, there is little reason to fear Moussaoui could make a martyr of himself simply because of the presence of a television camera. On the contrary, if the Justice Department proves its case against him in a properly conducted televised trial, the whole world will be utterly revolted -- not only by the heinous acts he is accused of committing but also by the twisted cause he espouses.

Copyright 2002, San Diego Tribune. All rights reserved.

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