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Just two reporters were allowed inside a Georgia courtroom to serve as the eyes and ears of the public when jury selection began for the men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery.
Pandemic restrictions also kept reporters and the public out of the courtroom during the sex-trafficking trial of music star R Kelly.
“This is a fundamental constitutional right that the public has — to have open courts and to be able to see what’s happening in real time in a courtroom,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which has prodded California courts to improve public access during the pandemic.
Covid-19 space constraints have led judges across the US to exclude or limit public and media attendance at trials.
During Kelly’s trial, which concluded last month with his conviction, a federal judge in New York barred the press and public from the courtroom because jurors were sitting six feet apart in the gallery normally used by observers.
Onlookers could watch a live video feed in an overflow courtroom, but it offered no view of the jury and only limited images of the defendant, witnesses and exhibits. At one point, prosecutors played a recording that jurors listened to with headphones, with no audio available for the press and public.
The judge rejected a request by media groups, including The Associated Press, to allow pool reporters in the courtroom for much of the trial, letting six reporters in only when the verdict was announced.