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Online news technologies challenge courtroom rules

| Monday, June 27, 2011

News accounts of Richard Poplawski's capital murder trial were popping up online so quickly, the judge initially thought reporters were violating his ban on transmitting from the courtroom.

Even Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning read news websites from the bench as he presided over the trial for the man who was convicted on Saturday of killing three Pittsburgh police officers.

For more than a week, technology has collided with courtroom rules that bar smartphones, laptop computers and even cameras from much of the Allegheny County Courthouse as media members and others tried to provide up-to-the-minute updates from Poplawski's much-anticipated trial.

"We want the public to be well-informed," University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said. "At the same time, you also have to guard against that (outside commentary) penetrating the courtroom."

A Dauphin County jury, brought to Pittsburgh because of the intense pretrial publicity, on Saturday convicted Poplawski of three counts of first-degree murder and 25 other charges. Poplawski, 24, fatally shot Officers Eric G. Kelly, Stephen J. Mayhle and Paul J. Sciullo II on April 4, 2009, when they responded to a domestic dispute at his Stanton Heights home.

The jury today will start hearing evidence in the trial's penalty phase before it decides whether Poplawski should be sentenced to death.

"In a case where the jury is sequestered, I don't really have any concerns," said Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli, lead prosecutor in the case.

In response to media requests, his office e-mailed crime scene photos, recordings of 911 calls and other electronic files as lawyers admitted them into evidence. Media usually get such evidence, which is public record, on request. However, with the volume of photos and audio calls admitted into evidence in the Poplawski trial, the public saw more evidence than ever before in an Allegheny County trial, Tranquilli said.

"Because they were police officers, they were members of an extended family of everyone in Allegheny County. Everyone had a proprietary interest in this case," Tranquilli said. "I think the victims' families understood that."

Pennsylvania typically bans cameras in courtrooms, unlike Florida and California, which allow live broadcasts of trials to the public. Manning permitted a camera to broadcast a closed-circuit feed of the Poplawski trial to another courtroom to handle an overflow crowd, the first time that has happened in Allegheny County. Media had no access to the feed.

County court rules implemented in 2007 restrict the use of most electronics and all cameras to small areas of the third and fifth floors of the courthouse. Cameras could capture images of Poplawski only when deputies escorted him into those areas.

"The No. 1 story (on our site) has been Poplawski. People can't seem to get enough of it," said Mike Bothwell, director of news coverage for WPXI-TV, which was sending constant feeds from trial reporters and interns to its website, Facebook page and Twitter.

Harris noted a key aspect of a criminal trial is the judge's control over what evidence a jury considers in deciding guilt or innocence. Jurors increasingly see access to the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and other services as a right that they should not have to give up during a trial, he said.

"This is what people do. This is how they relate. This is how they socialize. This is how they gather information," Harris said.

In 2007, U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab allowed live blogging from his federal courtroom, Downtown, during the trial of Dr. Cyril Wecht. The former Allegheny County coroner was charged with using his public office for private gain. The case ended in a mistrial, and federal prosecutors dropped the remaining charges.

In 2010, a Dauphin County judge allowed reporters to send tweets -- messages on the microblogging service Twitter -- during the "Bonusgate" trial of lawmakers and staffers.

Manning interprets state law to mean that reporters cannot use computers, cell phones or cameras in the courtroom. Reporters are free to leave often to file updates outside of court in the Poplawski case.

Jerry McDevitt, an attorney who defended Wecht, said technology affects trials in several areas.

With criminal trials, for example, the so-called "CSI effect" has jurors who are familiar with the hit TV show expecting to see lavish forensic evidence. That helps or hurts the case, depending on which side you're on and whether the evidence exists.

"You can make that a pretty effective part of your prosecution or defense," McDevitt said.

In civil trials, modern technology has made it easier to present reams of evidence to a jury through TV screens, he said, but that's not always a good thing since many people, including McDevitt, prefer handling the evidence.

The case against Poplawski involved more than 500 pieces of evidence, including a computer graphic animation that prosecutors said illustrated how he killed the officers.

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