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DA Krasner Asks PA Supreme Court to Halt Streaming of Trials to Protect Victims, Witnesses & Jurors

CONTACT:
Jane Roh, District Attorney’s Office, 215–686–8711, [email protected]

PHILADELPHIA (Sept. 14, 2020) District Attorney Larry Krasner on Monday filed a petition for the exercise of King’s Bench or other extraordinary jurisdiction by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to halt the livestreaming of criminal jury trials on YouTube.

Prior to Monday, the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) had filed motions objecting to YouTube livestreaming by the First Judicial District (FJD) of two murder trials and three sexual assault trials — including one involving children — scheduled for this month. Livestreaming sensitive jury trials on YouTube could allow anonymous members of the public to record or capture images of victims, witnesses, and jurors — which is never permissible by the FJD in physical courtrooms.

The Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate and 11 local victims’ rights organizations supported the DAO’s objections.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the courts in March, we have repeatedly and respectfully requested that the First Judicial District develop new public access policies that protect the First Amendment rights of the press and public, the Sixth Amendment rights of defendants to speedy and public trials, as well as the safety and security of all involved in court proceedings, including victims, witnesses, and jurors,” District Attorney Krasner said. “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. 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’s objections to the FJD livestreaming policy are as follows:

  • 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.

Until last week, when jury trials resumed for the first time since courts closed in March, most proceedings had been open to the public by way of Zoom, where an email address and Zoom account are required for access.

In an exhibit supporting the Commonwealth’s position, Commonwealth Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm wrote: “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. 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.”

The King’s Bench petition filed by the DAO can be found here.

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The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million citizens of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.