Cameras in juvenile court present judicial balancing act

By Peter H. Milliken


Judge Theresa Dellick of Mahoning County Juvenile Court would have opened her courtroom to media cameras and sound recordings if she were to preside over a high-profile case such as the Steubenville rape trial or the Chardon High School shooting case.

However, Judge Dellick said she would not have allowed photographers to show the faces of the defendants, which were shown during the Steubenville trial.

Her position on this issue is “probably the overriding philosophy of juvenile judges across the state of Ohio,” Judge Dellick said.

“Some go as far as to not let you use their names.”

In her court, “We have allowed the names [to be published or broadcast] only because they are on the police report, and that’s a public record,” Judge Dellick explained. However, Judge Dellick said she insists that only initials or a pseudonym be used for juvenile victims and juvenile witnesses.

In Columbiana County Juvenile Court, where Judge Thomas Baronzzi presides, a local rule says any request to televise, photograph or record the proceedings must be made in writing at least 24 hours in advance; the equipment must be pre-positioned and stay in one place; and no cassettes, film, magazines or lenses are to be changed while court is in session.

No victims, witnesses or jurors may be photographed or recorded without the judge’s permission. “If the subject matter of the proceeding is a child, the name or identity of any party, witness, child, parent or participant shall not be disclosed unless by specific authorization of the court,” according to the rules of practice of the Columbiana County Juvenile Court.

In juvenile court, “We are supposed to be rehabilitating, and what if these students are innocent? What have we done, especially with the power of the media?” Judge Dellick asked.

“Sometimes, kids do dumb things. And because you did one dumb thing, are we supposed to label you for the rest of your life?” Judge Dellick asked.

When it comes to sex offenders in juvenile court, “that’s the only chance you’re ever going to rehabilitate them. The research bears that out,” Judge Dellick said.

“If you’re going to want to stop someone from being a serial rapist, you have to do it in juvenile court,” she said.

The two Steubenville High School football players, Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, were convicted March 17 of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl. Theirs was a nonjury trial before Judge Thomas Lipps, a retired visiting Jefferson County Juvenile Court judge, who sentenced them to a minimum of one and two years, respectively, in juvenile detention.

Immediately after the verdict, Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine said he will convene a grand jury next month to investigate whether anyone else should be charged in that case.

In the Chardon case, T.J. Lane, now 18, was sentenced in adult court March 19 to three life prison terms without parole after he pleaded guilty to the February 2012 murder of three students in the Chardon High School cafeteria.

Lane had been bound over from Geauga County Juvenile Court for adult court proceedings.

Although photographers showed Lane’s face in adult court, they did not do so in juvenile court, Judge Dellick noted.

“You have to weigh the interests of the child against the interest of the public to know what’s going on,” said Judge Pamela Rintala of Trumbull County Family Court.

In routine juvenile delinquency cases, Judge Rintala said she doesn’t allow camera and sound recordings by the media, because, in routine cases, the privacy interests of the young defendants outweigh the public’s right to know.

However, she added: “We’ve always said, in high-profile cases, there was more of a need for the public to know what’s going on.”

For the juvenile court portion of the Lane case, Judge Rintala said she would have let the cameras into the court, but likely would have forbidden the showing of his face because the juvenile court phase was merely a preliminary phase to decide whether he should be bound over to adult court.

In the Steubenville rape case, Judge Rintala said she probably would not have let the media show the defendants’ faces during the trial because “that was such an intensely emotional case” and because the defendants were entitled to a presumption of innocence until proved delinquent.

“I’d want to protect everybody’s identities until the case was disposed of,” Judge Rintala said.

However, in the hearing where the judge rendered the delinquent verdict and pronounced sentence, she said she probably would have let the cameras show the defendants’ faces.

As for publication of names of youthful defendants, Judge Rintala said she has always told the media they can get the defendants’ names from police or prosecutors, if they’re willing to divulge them, but the court won’t release the names.

“We do try to stick to a standard of confidentiality in the juvenile court. So, with that in mind, we’re not going to give out information,” she said.

Both Judge Rintala and Judge Baronzzi said each juvenile case has different circumstances, and media access must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Judge Baronzzi said, declining to comment specifically on the Chardon or Steubenville cases because he didn’t want to run afoul of Ohio Supreme Court rules barring judges from second-guessing or criticizing their colleagues.

However, he did say: “We’d use a number of tools to achieve the protections that are necessary, but, at the same time, respect the access rights of the media.” For example, he said he might allow media access to some testimony, but not other testimony.

Considerations for the juvenile court judge include the media’s right of access to the courts, the need to protect the identities of the victims and the subject matter of the case, he said. The court wants to avoid further victimization of someone who’s in need of protection, he said.

As for defendants, Judge Baronzzi said: “There are some circumstances where spreading their faces across the news may hinder our ability to address rehabilitation of the youth.” Such publicity might subject the defendants to public contempt, ridicule, scorn or retaliation, he noted.

“These are sensitive issues. Our main goal is to be able to hold children accountable, but equally important is to rehabilitate them so that they’re not repeat offenders,” he said.

“As the level of the offense becomes greater, it may tend to tip the scale in favor of disclosing their identities,” he observed.

With limited exceptions, Judge Dellick said her policy is to allow cameras into her courtroom. However, she does not allow them to show defendants’ faces.

Per Ohio Supreme Court rules, photographers must position themselves in a single location and not move around the courtroom, she noted.

In a high-profile case, Judge Dellick said she would have to decide based on the demand for media access whether to limit television coverage to a single pool camera in the courtroom that would supply coverage to all TV stations. “I would have to determine how many cameras there are and how disruptive it is,” she said, adding that her largest courtroom seats only 50 people.

With limited exceptions, Judge Dellick said she permits pad-and-pen coverage of events in her courtroom and provides media access to written case records in her clerk of court’s office.

The limited exceptions to the courtroom and court record access include cases of abused, neglected or dependent children. “Those are usually closed to the public,” she said. Mental health, medical and probation records also are kept confidential, she said.

On another aspect of the Chardon case, Judge Dellick said she would have imposed a 30-day jail term for contempt on Lane for the obscene gesture he made to the victims’ families at his sentencing hearing, and she would have ordered him to turn and wear inside out the shirt he wore to court with the word “killer” written on it.

“I would add the 30 days. I think we have to have decorum in the courtroom,” she said.

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