By Julietta Bisharyan
PHILADELPHIA – To protect witnesses, victims and jurors, District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a petition Monday for the exercise of King’s Bench or other extraordinary jurisdiction by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to cease the livestreaming of criminal jury trials on YouTube.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic closed courts back in March, the First Judicial District (FJD) adopted a “Public Access to Judicial Proceedings During the COVID-19 Pandemic-Livestream Policy,” which allowed court proceedings to be streamed for public access over the internet via YouTube.
With trials made more available to the public, anonymous members are able to record or capture sensitive images of victims, witnesses, and jurors, which would otherwise be prohibited by the FJD in physical courtrooms.
“The FJD has gone too far in attempting to meet public access requirements in the COVID-19 era. The policy of streaming criminal jury trials over YouTube violates the privacy of all parties and endangers witnesses in a jurisdiction known for intimidation and retaliation achieved through social media,” reads the petition. “There is no need to take these risks where ample alternatives exist that meet or exceed constitutional requirements.”
Earlier, the District Attorney’s Office had filed motions objecting to YouTube livestreaming by the First Judicial District of two murder trials and three sexual assault trials—one involving children—scheduled for this month.
The Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate and 11 local victims’ rights organizations supported the District Attorney Office’s objections.
“The criminal legal system is heavily reliant on the cooperation of victims, witnesses, and jurors to seek justice and to deter the commission of crimes,” District Attorney Krasner said. “We must be able to offer reasonable assurances that victims will not be unnecessarily re-traumatized, and that those who cooperate in prosecutions will be safe. I am hopeful that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court joins victims’ advocates and my office in supporting an appropriate balance between public access and public safety.”
The Commonwealth has filed objections to the FJD livestreaming policy on the following bases:
- YouTube streaming will enable anyone with internet access, in a manner difficult or impossible to detect and prevent, to record, redistribute, and permanently retain the testimony and arguments introduced at trial.
- Such recordings can be used to intimidate a witness to prevent their testimony or to alert a hostile audience that a particular witness has testified against a particular defendant, thus exposing that witness to retaliation.
- The very awareness that their testimony will be streamed on YouTube will disincline already reluctant witnesses to testify.
- The ability to record and distribute the details of a victim’s suffering, for whatever purpose, to an infinite internet audience exposes the victim to an enhanced loss of privacy and to re-traumatization.
- The ability to record and distribute trial testimony precludes the meaningful sequestration of witnesses, where any witness with internet access can listen to the testimony of earlier witnesses and tailor their own testimony to either contradict or corroborate that earlier testimony.
The petition also specified that that the issue not be left to the discretion of individual judges, on a case-by-case basis.
“The process of livestreaming hearings to massive audiences is likely to result in re-traumatization for crime victims and witnesses, who are often required to disclose details of their victimization when engaging in the criminal law process,” wrote Commonwealth Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm.
“Livestreaming also fails to address victims’ rights regarding safety and privacy. The number of potential viewers is nearly incalculable, adding unnecessary risks for victims and witnesses,” Storm added.
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9