Iowa judge seizes memory card from student photojournalist for violating court rules during murder trial

May 21, 2021

A district court judge seized a memory card from a photojournalist for The Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa student newspaper, after she photographed jurors in a Davenport, Iowa, murder trial, in violation of court rules, on May 21, 2021, The Associated Press reported.

The photojournalist, whom the judge asked media not to identify, took pictures of jurors as they were being shown photographs of the body of a slain woman during the murder trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, according to The Des Moines Register. The Daily Iowan acknowledged in an editor’s note that its photographer had been removed from the courtroom because of “photographs involving jurors.”

The Register reported that as the jury was dismissed for a lunch break, one juror brought the photographer to the attention of Judge Joel Yates. After clearing the room of everyone but the photographer and an AP pool reporter, Yates asked the photographer, “What were you thinking?”

According to the Register, the photographer said that her editor told her it was OK to take pictures of the jury, and she was not aware of court rules that prohibit covering jurors.

The photographer deleted the photos from the camera in front of Yates, according to the Register. Yates then took the photographer’s memory card, which he said he believed would make sure no photographs of the jurors would be published, the Register reported.

The judge then told the journalist to go home, according to the Register. The paper reported that Yates said she was a young journalist who made a mistake and that the judge asked other members of the media not to identify the journalist because he didn’t want the incident to damage her career.

Multiple requests from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker for comment from The Daily Iowan were not answered. The publication acknowledged the incident in an editor’s note at the end of a May 22 article.

“The DI [Daily Iowan] recognizes the gravity of the mistake and regrets the error,” the note reads. “The DI has been allowed to and will continue to report on trial proceedings. Judge Joel Yates said during proceedings that it was an honest mistake made by a young photographer, and no further action was taken against the photographer.”

Steve Davis, spokesperson for the Iowa judicial branch, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the photographer violated Iowa Court Rules by taking photographs of the jury.

Chapter 25 of the rules bars media from covering jurors, except when they are returning a verdict or unless it is unavoidable in covering other proceedings in the courtroom. Media rules specifically set for the Bahena Rivera trial state that media coverage of jurors is prohibited, according to a court document posted online by the Register.

The Tracker documents all instances when journalists’ equipment is seized in the course of their work.

Sarah Matthews, senior staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and a member of the Tracker’s advisory committee, said that rules for photography vary between different courts, and can even vary from one trial to another.

“Before reporters go into courts and start taking pictures, they need to be aware that they need to educate themselves and what their rules are for that particular court,” she said.

Courts have significant discretion for setting rules for media coverage, and for how those rules are enforced, according to Matthews.

Matthews said that the judge’s confiscation of the journalist’s memory card was “troubling” — particularly if there were other photographs on the card besides the ones involving jurors.

“There's any, any number of ways that the judge could have handled it and typically they have a lot of discretion in that area as to how to handle violations of their orders,” she said.

One possibility would be for a judge to just give the photographer a warning, Matthews said, though another judge might have taken a harsher approach by holding the journalist in contempt of court. Matthews said the journalist should have had a hearing in order to have an opportunity to object to the judge taking the equipment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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