Provo • A Utah doctor accused of killing his wife in 2007 so he could continue an extramarital affair will be tried before a judge, a jury and a national television audience.
Thanks to a judge’s ruling Monday in 4th District Court, the six-week murder trial of Martin MacNeill will likely become the first criminal court proceeding to be live broadcast ever in Utah history.
Cameras positioned in the courtroom will be allowed to roll from opening statements to closing arguments in the six-week trial of MacNeill, whose story has grabbed national headlines for years — even before murder and obstructing justice charges were filed against him in 2012.
If convicted, MacNeill could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Although no network has officially applied to cover the trial, representatives from CNN and ABC News sat in the courtroom Monday as prosecutors and defense attorneys argued over final motions and trial procedures.
Prosecutors, who led the charge in attempting to ban television cameras from the entire trial, argued that live streaming court proceedings would upend the legal process, intimidate jurors and endanger key witnesses.
“A national news outlet ran a story or a piece on this case and a relative contacted one of our witnesses to say, ‘Hey that case you may testify at might be on CourtTV or CNN or something,’ ” prosecutor Chad Grunander said. “This man, who is an inmate at a federal prison, is afraid of being branded a snitch. He told us he’d be a dead man on the inside if his testimony is known. ... That would absolutely jeopardize the state’s case.”
The judge disagreed.
Judge Derek Pullan made one concession to prosecutors: He ordered that the two witnesses who prosecutors said would face retaliation for their testimony — federal inmates who feared being branded “snitches” inside prison walls — be kept out of all photography and video of the case, and be referred to only as “federal inmate number one” and “federal inmate number two.”
The audio of their testimony will be allowed to be broadcast.
“I’m not persuaded that a wholesale prohibition of electronic coverage is warranted,” Pullan said. “There is significant public interest in this case.”
Video recording is a relatively new concept for Utah courts. A rule banning the use of recording equipment and personal electronic devices — laptops, smartphones, tablets and so on — was overturned last year.
“Heretofore in the state of Utah we have gotten along just fine without [television cameras in court],” Grunander said. “Banning cameras is a measured response. I’m not asking for all media to be banned.”
Salt Lake City attorney and media law expert Jeff Hunt, who represented CNN at the hearing Monday, told the judge this conversation is the first of many to make their way into Utah courtrooms.
“This is a new world. And we have to find a way to live with those cameras that also allows justice to be done,” Hunt said. “Just because you allow a camera in here doesn’t mean it’s all fair game — a courtroom is still a highly controlled environment.”
The new rule, which assumes that these devices are allowed unless explicitly banned by a judge, went into effect April 1.
Only 14 states continue to ban television news cameras at trial court proceedings. Utah has joined 19 other states in allowing video and audio recordings of both civil and criminal cases at the trial level.
Prosecutors and MacNeill’s attorneys fought over a seven motions Monday, including whether to disqualify certain witnesses and testimony from the former doctor’s upcoming trial.
MacNeill is scheduled to face a jury in mid-October.
Other motions decided at Monday’s hearing
• Prosecutors and witnesses will not be allowed to refer to Martin MacNeill’s deceased wife, Michele MacNeill, as “the victim.” Because the defendant is contending she was not murdered — by him or anyone — the judge ruled that language would be inappropriate.
• Before Michelle MacNeill died, she made several statements to her daughter, who had been caring for her. Prosecutors will not be allowed to use several of these statements, including, “If anything happens to me, make sure it wasn’t your dad.”
• The judge reserved ruling on several motions, including on statements allegedly made by MacNeill himself, until the trial is underway.