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As the Virginia Supreme Court gets ready to hear a case that could redefine the legal basis for judges to deny cameras in Virginia courtrooms, a Fairfax County judge has unexpectedly decided to allow them in the upcoming homicide case of a 19-year-old Vienna woman who was found dead in her car in 2010.

On July 26, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush decided there was “no good cause” to deny requests by local media to televise the trial proceedings concerning the death of art student Vanessa Pham.

Pham was a 2009 graduate of James Madison High School. At Madison, she received a Distinguished Senior Award for outstanding achievement in fine arts. Prior to her death, she had just completed her freshman year at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She was home for the summer when her life was taken.

On June 27, 2010, Pham was last seen alive outside of Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center minutes before her white Toyota Scion was found in a nearby ditch at the intersection of Arlington Boulevard and Williams Drive. Pham had been repeatedly stabbed and the case was determined to have been a homicide, police said. Police later discovered a surveillance videotape showing that Pham had been at Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center only 10 minutes before her body was discovered.

Her homicide went unsolved for more than two-and-a-half years, but in December 2012, Fairfax County police announced that they had identified a suspect in her case. Julio Miguel Blanco-Garcia, 27, a Guatemalan national living on the 6100 block of Willston Drive in Falls Church, has been arrested and charged in connection with Pham’s death. According to a Fairfax County police incident report, one of his fingerprints allegedly matched one found in Pham’s car. According to immigration officials, Blanco-Garcia was also in the U.S. illegally.

Blanco-Garcia’s attorney, David Bernhard, did not immediately return calls for comment. Jury selection in the case is set for Aug. 19, and when the trial begins soon after, there will be both television and still cameras allowed to record it, despite some reservations from prosecutors.

“My main reservation is that some witnesses will not feel as comfortable with television cameras in the courtroom and it will likely affect their performance,” said Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Casey Lingan.

The debate over cameras in the courtrooms and the effect on those involved is not a new one.

Detractors claim cameras cause a “media circus” atmosphere and turn serious court proceedings into entertainment, among other complaints. “Witnesses, for lack of a better word, tend to ‘ham’ it up,” said Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert in his arguments against television coverage of the Washington, D.C., sniper trial in 2002.

On the other side of the argument, former federal judge Nancy Gertner, who retired in 2011, has testified before Congress on behalf of courtroom cameras, stating that changes in participant behavior can be attributed to other factors.

“I believe that if such behavior occurs at all, it is the function of … the fact that most of the televised trials are high-profile cases, where the participants are already acutely aware of the publicity surrounding them. …” she testified to Congress in 2007.

In her testimony, Gertner goes on the say that 21st-century “public” standards almost decry televised proceedings.

“Public proceedings in the 21st century necessarily mean televised proceedings,” she testified. “‘Public access’ means something different today than it meant years ago, and all of the institutions of government have to adjust to it. ‘Public’ means more than simply opening up our courtrooms to the public. It means television, video and internet … at a time when judges are under attack, when judicial institutions are the fodder of late night talk shows, we need to work harder than ever to show the public just what we do.”

In Virginia, however, electronic media access to courtrooms is governed by Va. Code 19.2-266, which states that individual judges may permit cameras at their discretion. But the law also states that a judge may only deny electronic media “for good cause shown,” a legal dilemma that will soon be addressed by the Virginia Supreme Court, which has granted a hearing in the case of Virginia Broadcasting Corporation vs. Commonwealth of Virginia and George Huguely. The case stems from the well-publicized 2012 case of George Huguely V, the University of Virginia student and lacrosse player who was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison for the murder of his former girlfriend, Yeardley Love.

The lawsuit claims that Judge Edward L. Hogshire denied media coverage of the trial without giving any substantive reasoning, claiming he simply had “unfettered discretion” to do so.

The suit appeals to the Virginia Supreme Court to rule on the conflicting language of Va. Code 19.2-266, and will decide whether the “good cause” standard provides a judge with such unfettered discretion, or if it requires a more narrowly tailored evidence-based finding on such a ruling. The case is expected to be heard this fall.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com