OKLAHOMA CITY - Pre-trial hearings in the murder case against accused Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols can be televised, a judge ruled Monday.
''It's really the right thing to do,'' Associate District Judge Robert M. Murphy Jr. said, invalidating a court rule in Oklahoma that prohibits televising criminal court cases when the defendant objects.
He called the court rule bad public policy and an unconstitutional infringement on the fundamental right of the press ''to attend and cover criminal proceedings.''
''The courtroom is open to the people,'' Murphy wrote. ''The courtroom is not the private legal domain of the judge, the lawyers and the parties. It belongs to the public. Opening the courtroom doors wider through the camera lens allows the public to better exercise and enjoy this right.''
Murphy will consider pre-trial motions in the case but left television coverage of the trial itself to the trial judge, District Judge Steven W. Taylor of McAlester.
Attorneys for the defense and prosecution have objected to cameras in the courtroom in Nichols' case and indicated they will appeal Murphy's decision.
Assistant District Attorney Richard Wintory said he is concerned about how televising Nichols' Aug. 7 preliminary hearing and other pre-trial hearings might affect potential jurors and requested a stay until the ruling is reviewed by higher courts. Murphy took the request under advisement.
Media attorney Robert Nelon praised the ruling. Court TV and television stations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa requested a camera in the courtroom to provide gavel-to-gavel pool coverage at Nichols' trial and pre-trial hearings.
Nelon said giving the presiding judge discretion to decide whether cameras belong in a courtroom in criminal cases brings Oklahoma in line with the majority of states in courtroom coverage by the electronic media.
Murphy said information supplied by the National Center for State Courts indicated that Oklahoma and Alabama are the only two states that give defendants veto power over cameras in the courtroom.
''The trial judge's discretion is still very important,'' Nelon said. ''I think it's a good thing for the state of Oklahoma.''
Nichols is charged with 160 counts of first-degree murder in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. He is serving a life sentence on a federal conviction of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter.
On the Net:
Radio, Television News Directors' Association site: http://www.rtndf.org/news/cameras.htm
Oklahoma Supreme Court site: http://www.oscn.net