The Nerve(s)!

THE SETUP:

Reporters love getting tips.

Some love telling stories.  Some love making a difference.  Sometimes, it’s a little bit of a mix.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg, a man who writes like most people breathe, put it this way:  “I didn’t get into this business to change the world; I just wanted to tell stories.  But now and then, you can make people care, make people notice that something ain’t quite right, and nudge them gently, with the words, to get off their ass and fix it.”

One of the best feelings as a journalist, though, is finding a tip before anyone else.  The secret you’re excited about and, at the same time, have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that another reporter might just know what you know.  No one’s ever heard of the second town crier.

I had a tip last week.  Not a huge one, but a good one.  Bill Moore, the man charged with what had been a four-year-old cold case murder, was trying to reach a plea deal.  The deal would probably be finalized by the end of the day Friday.

Bill Moore

For more than four-and-a-half years, no one knew who killed Carol Mould.  Her body was found strangled in her home in September 2004, and the murderer also set the house and her body on fire.  Up until Moore had a nervous breakdown and confessed his actions to a Butler County paramedic last May, the former Boy Scout leader had never even been looked at as a suspect.

Carol Mould

Sure enough, we reported the plea deal Friday night.  Mould’s husband told us he didn’t care whether Moore said he was guilty or a jury did.  With the help of a weekend, no one else confirmed the story until Monday with the plea hearing set for Tuesday.

THE POINT:

Moore appeared ashamed when he walked into a Butler County courtroom to listen to his first degree murder charge last May.  I covered Moore’s preliminary hearing in October.  Our cameras watched multiple witnesses testify about his confession.

As I prepared to head to El Dorado for Tuesday afternoon’s plea, imagine my surprise when word came down around 10:00 a.m. that cameras (both still and video) wouldn’t be allowed in the courtroom.

The photographer I was working with and I both guessed Moore and his attorney convinced Judge John Sanders he simply wouldn’t plea in front of cameras.  We rushed to the courthouse early trying to figure out what had happened.  Judge Sanders wouldn’t meet with us.  The hearing happened, and I was in the courtroom sans camera.

After the hearing, those in the know told me our guess was right.  Moore’s attorney persuaded Judge Sanders to ban cameras because Moore was too nervous to make a second degree murder plea on video.

This fascinates me.  The judge allowed a man admitting to murder to control his courtroom.  Bill Moore will spend 13 years in prison, but he was worried about his picture being taken.

At times, attorneys and reporters can obviously have different views on cameras in the courtroom.  What are the sides here?

SUPPORT FOR CAMERA BAN:

Just a few minutes before Moore’s hearing started, I ran into a prosecutor I’ve worked with quite a bit since becoming a court reporter.  Kevin O’Connor, formerly with the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office, was stepping into another courtroom for a burglary prelim and offered his thoughts when I asked if it was possible our cameras were banned because of Moore’s nerves.

O’Connor handled countless high-profile murder trials in Wichita.  One of which I covered was a senseless murder at a downtown Wichita QuikTrip in March 2006.  Anthony Barnes shot 17-year-old clerk Brian Hall in the head because Barnes thought Hall and another customer were laughing at him.  Barnes suffered from severe mental illness and was charged with first degree murder.

O’Connor told me that leading up to the trial, Barnes’ attorney told him the defense was willing to stipulate to most of the details of the case.  The attorney simply wanted Barnes sent in for a mental evaluation.

O’Connor agreed to recommend the mental evaluation.  In the judge’s chambers, O’Connor said Barnes seemed calm and understood everything his attorney was telling him.

Once inside the courtroom, though, Barnes clammed up.  All calmness gone, the attorneys asked the judge for a conference in chambers.  Sure enough, Barnes was terrified of the cameras watching his every move.

Attorneys eventually got the mental evaluation they needed.  Barnes was also eventually convicted of first degree murder.

The point is cameras had an effect on the murder defendant and may have provided an indirect barrier to attorneys accomplishing what they needed to get done in court.

O’Connor has a reputation for believing in an open courtroom.  I’ve even seen him advocate that judges keep cameras in the courtroom, but you’d better believe that advocacy took a back seat for at least one day.

SUPPORT FOR CAMERAS IN THE COURTROOM:

Simply put, government works best in the sunlight.

There has been study after study to prove the presence of cameras in the courtroom have no negative effect on witnesses and jurors during trials.  Some have even suggested attorneys felts jurors were more attentive when cameras were present.  They say witnesses showed no decreased ability in recounting memories for testimony.

This also brings up an interesting situation because Moore wasn’t a juror and only potentially a witness…but ultimately, he was a defendant.  I’ve seen several defendants take the stand in their own defense who wanted cameras turned off for their testimony, but judges ruled that wasn’t the defendant’s call.  Moore wasn’t testifying.  He was doing something more…confessing to his crime.  Can he say he has more of a right to be off camera for confessing to murder than if he was defending himself?

It might (might!) be more understandable if Moore was forced to allocute, describing how he carried out the murder.  That carries an inherent embarrassment or nervousness in front of cameras, but again, has he forfeited his right to be embarrassed?  Anyway, Moore didn’t have to allocute.  The only words he said in the courtroom were “yes,” “no,” “guilty,” “Your,” and “Honor.

Carol Mould’s community also had a vested interest in this story.  For nearly five years, everyone wondered who’d committed such a brutal act.  So many surmised it must have been Carol’s husband who killed her (that speculation led Doug Mould and Carol’s family to significant and still-present animosity).

Doug Mould talks to reporters after Bill Moore's guilty plea.

The public wanted to see and hear someone take responsibility.  KWCH even received e-mails from people wanting to know if we planned to stream the plea hearing live on our website as we’d done with other trials’ proceedings.

One of the more surprising aspects to me was simply that the judge allowed it.  Judges are minor league kings on their turf.  The idea a defendant could say he wasn’t comfortable confessing with cameras around and that being allowed brings a sense of control to the defendant.

THE UPSHOT:

My opinion is likely very obvious by this point, though arguments can be made for either side.  It also matters very little against a state-sanctioned and licensed judge, and we’re not allowed to report our own opinions.

Then again, what would you expect from a journalist?  A call for closed courtrooms?  Reporters believe democracy dies behind closed doors.

We also love tips…and hate it when we can’t share them fully with the viewing public!

I apologize for the ridiculously long post.  It’s easily the longest I’ve ever written.  Cameras in the courtroom…what do you think?

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