Cameras in the courtroom
U.S. Supreme Court could kill the 'Florida experiment'
by Gene Miller
Miami Herald, Nov. 11, 1980
For now it is the camera that is on trial, not the client.
The crime began as a bizarre whodunit late one night in May 1977. John E. Sion, 22, a sickly junior college student, couldn't sleep.
"I have a digital clock, and when I woke up, it was 2:50 a.m." He lived with his mother on the 10th floor of a Miami Beach high rise. He owned a ham radio.
He picked up a book that night and turned on the radio. By chance it was set on Channel 3, 146.52 megahertz. "Some voices came on. I didn't pay much attention."
Two voices, male, spoke surreptitiously for possibly five minutes. "The numbers didn't work...I got it open anyway....the registers are empty."
Slowly, a thought dawned. "I think I tuned in some cat burglars." He fumbled around for a cassette. He found one on which he had taped "Police Story." He flipped it over and taped conversations for 7 minutes and 42 seconds.
Eventually, he mentioned the tape to a man who lived in the same high rise. He was Donald Froschneider, retired, a police buff, a sort of Jack Ruby character, a gentleman hard of hearing and in ailing health, in need of an oxygen tank, Valium, and smelling salts.
Froschneider meandered over to the Miami Beach Police Department. Casually, he gave the tape to a detective with the unlikely name of Lt. Jack Webb.
Some days later Sgt. Fred Morgan and Martio Mongeaugdo, of internal affairs, finally figured out exactly what they had. And it shocked them.
Not only had they a tape recording of a burglary, they recognized and identified the voices of the burglars: Two Miami Beach policemen — Otis Chandler and Robert Granger.
But solving the crime didn't come easily. "We didn't know what joint they'd hit," said Morgan. "We pulled all the sheets on burglaries and nothing fit."
Enter here, some weeks later, Martin F. Dardis, chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney. Dardis is a smart cop, an explosive, Type-A personality. He was the cop who linked Richard Nixon's campaign money to the Cuban Watergate burglars.
Dardis walked the sleazy South Beach neighborhood trying to make geographical sense from the tape.
Suddenly he noticed a 9½-foot tall chain-link fence. A couple of links had been replaced. Why? He spotted a new padlock. What happened to the old one? He found it lying in the weeds, broken and discarded.
"Any burglaries there?" he asked.
Weeks before, Picciolo's headwaiter, Larry Smith, had locked up 10 doors at about 12:30 a.m. on May 23. The cook, Louis Page, found one back door ajar the next morning.
And owner Vincent Picciolo found three neat drill holes in a kitchen safe concreted into the floor. Missing, he calculated, was about $5,500 in cash.
Investigator Dardis checked out Chandler's off-duty employment at LaGorce Country Club. Not so incidentally, he heard about a $16,000 safejob there, too. Chandler was a club mechanic.
At the club, Dardis found a man who had seen two walkie-talkies in Chandler's car. The man remembered the Japanese manufacturer. Dardis traced the importer to Las Vegas, then ran down the Miami distributor.
Dardis confronted his two brawny suspects. "I'm not going to arrest a cop unless I can guarantee a conviction," he began.
"I wanted to know what else they'd pulled. They stonewalled me."
In the courtroom, defense attorney Hirschhorn, then 34, fiercely contested almost everything.
Some years ago Hirschhorn qualified as the finest pornography lawyer in Miami, defender of adult bookstores, champion of the First Amendment for films such as "The Devil in Miss Jones."
In recent years his practice has narrowed to big money drugs: cocaine, marijuana and Quaaludes, along with an occasional white-collar defendant.
For Chandler and Granger, he argued invasion of privacy on the incriminating tape. He tried to get it suppressed. For a pre-trial motion, Chandler testified.
"We were, you might say, playing a practical joke. We had a bet going as to whether or not anyone was listening to that particular frequency — and the best way to prove it would be to stage a burglary on the airways."
Chandler professed that he had purchased the walkie-talkies for deer hunting.
He didn't convince Circuit Judge Alan R. Schwartz. The tape became state's exhibit 1-BB.
Hirschhorn, long a ferocious opponent of cameras in the courtroom, had filed numerous protests even before the cameramen arrived.
During Florida vs Chandler, WPLG-TV televised 90 seconds on the trial one night; 65 seconds the next. WTVJ-TV Channel 4, using a pool arrangement, showed 80 seconds.
On Dec. 8, 1977, the jury convicted. The judge sentenced the two safe-cracker cops to seven years each for four felonies. They spent one night in jail before posting appeal bonds.
Hirschhorn petitioned the Supreme Court on Feb. 18, 1980. He labeled television "a blind rush to electronic justice."
"An electronic narcotic," he called it, "serving the public's attention to the sensational."
When the court granted the petition April 21, a congratulatory downpour drenched Hirschhorn in instant bar-celebrity status.
Legal heavies for the networks, public television, broadcasters, publishers, editors, reporters responded to Hirschhorn's assault. They argued the public's right, how public scrutiny fosters fairness, how television makes lawyers, witnesses and judges more conscientious.
For Florida, Attorney General Jim Smith declared: "The defendants cannot defeat their convictions by arguing the hypothetical rights of hypothetical persons in hypothetical circumstances, absent a clear First Amendment claim."
Smith, 40, is political, a land-cattleman worth $8,033,762, an addicted jogger, and according to Hirschhorn, a perfect adversary for oral arguments on Wednesday. "Like taking candy from a baby," said Hirschhorn.
It will be Smith's first appearance before the court; Hirschhorn's too.
Hirschhorn denounced the media's so-called "surrogate" role to the public. "The real basis for the 'surrogate's' effort to override the accused's constitutional right, is economic competition. Next, the copy editors and typesetters will clamor to have their equipment in the courtroom. Perhaps the solution is to simply move the trial — lock, stock and barrel — to the television station or to the newspaper's plant," he said.
"The televised criminal trial rule is neither a social, nor economic experiment. It is, instead, an ill-advised experiment in 'living' jurisprudence, the effects of which, at best, are unknown, and at worst, disastrous.
"If, for any reason, the defendant were to be acquitted, his unwanted television notoriety will follow him to his grave," argued Hirschhorn.
He quoted an admirer: "As for Justice — she should remain blindfolded — not have one eye peeking at TV cameras."
Hirschhorn concedes, though, that for his clients, the safecracker cops, the case might be the wrong one to be argued before the Supreme Court.
"It reduces the issue to its purest form," he declares, and most lawyers, as well as television viewers, agree that he is quite correct.
Thirty-four years after arguing against cameras before the Supreme Court, Hirschhorn still firmly believes that they have no place in courtrooms.
"I am unabashedly, wholeheartedly, and unreservedly against cameras when the defendant objects," Hirschhorn told me by phone today.
Lakeland Ledger, July 7, 1977: Cyclops in the Courtroom
Palm Beach Post, Jan. 27, 1981: U.S. Supreme Court ruling will allow cameras in court
Miami News, Jan. 27, 1981: Camera-in-court fight not quite over
New York Times Magazine, Feb. 15, 1981: Television's Day in Court
U.S Supreme Court: Chandler v. Florida, 449 U.S. 560 (1981)