Trial began last week for an Egg Harbor Township man accused of attacking a string of women in Atlantic City.
But no photos will be taken inside the courtroom to capture Hiten Patel, seated next to his attorney in a suit. No video of opening statements or his testimony if he should take the stand.
As protection for victims, photos and video are banned for court cases involving sexual assault or when the victim is a surviving juvenile.
Because of this, the photo that runs with stories of Patel’s trial is the only one available to the media: his mug shot.
“I think the rule absolutely makes sense,” Patel’s attorney, James Leonard Jr., said. “I just think how it’s applied should be revisited to balance the rights of the defendant to be properly depicted to media outlets.”
Defendants on trial — whether in jail or not — wear street clothes to avoid prejudice from the jury. Those testifying who are in custody also are provided street clothing. That has happened in this trial, as one of the women alleging Patel raped her is currently jailed in Camden.
Leonard, however, said he does not believe the mugshot has been an issue in this case.
“Now can you put in another photo of me?” Roderick Knox asked in February 2013, after he was acquitted of molestation charges for a second time.
Knox — an Atlantic City fire captain — was twice accused of molesting two different teenage girls years apart. Twice, juries found him not guilty.
Getting that message out is much more important than which photo ran with the news reports, his defense attorney said.
“I am more concerned about trying to help a client who is acquitted spread that information,” Stephen Funk said. “It is a sad fact that, too often, the only thing that people remember is the accusation, even if it is false, no matter what photos exist.That unfortunately sticks with a wrongly accused person for life. You can’t unring that bell.”
Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said the rule is an important one in getting victims to testify.
“I’m very much supportive of an open courtroom,” he said. “The more people are able to see how the system operates the better off the system is. I’m also a very strong advocate for the rights of victims.”
He said the rule came from the understanding that it helps encourage people to come forward and report crimes.
“I think it’s very realistic,” McClain said. “It’s combining the interest of keeping an open public courtroom while being as protective of the victim as you possibly can.”
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