Archive for the ‘Courts’ Category

Saving Whose Face? Systematic CYA By The Catholic Diocese

September 13, 2012

Somebody screwed up.  Somebody screwed up bad.

That’s all I could think back in May 2011 when I read the details of a Kansas City priest’s arrest.  Father Shawn Ratigan was behind bars on suspicion of producing child pornography and, it seemed, the local diocese knew of his habits for several months before turning him over to police.

I’ve resisted writing about this case for more than a year now because I knew I’d likely cover the criminal case against Mr. Ratigan (he’s no longer Father Ratigan).  I didn’t feel it was appropriate to comment on the case until a verdict came down for both his criminal charges and the historic charges against Bishop Robert Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Bishop Robert Finn became the first U.S. bishop convicted of protecting an abusive priest. (Photo taken by pool still photographer)

With the latter case ending last week in a flurry of masterful tactics that kept all but two clergymen out of hot water, here is my experience with the story.

This wasn’t just a case of child sexual abuse.  This wasn’t just a cover-up.

This was a case of blind faith and those willing to take advantage…again.

THE FIRST DAY

Neither of us really wanted the story.  As our 10:00 producer walked over to our desks and explained a priest was in jail on some kind of child sex abuse case, Dan Weinbaum and I looked at each other and cringed.

Former Catholic priest Shawn Ratigan in court.

Simply put, those stories are no fun for reporters.  There are several reasons for this besides the disturbing content of the story.  No one is willing to talk, there are no appropriate visuals for a broadcast story, and people entirely disconnected from the story except for their membership in a particular parish stare daggers at you as though you’re the actual predator.

Dan had recently taken on another less-than-desirable story assignment (we sometimes call it “jumping on the grenade”), so I grabbed the charging documents and started reading.

Somebody screwed up.

The accusations made in the affidavit amazed me.  If proven true, it looked like at least a half dozen diocese officials would have to plead to colorblindness but for all the red flags waved in their faces.

The very first sentence bothered me.

“On May 13, 2011, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department was notified that on December 16, 2010, a priest at a local church had been having problems with his personal laptop computer.”

Five months?  Five MONTHS it took to call police?  Somebody screwed up.

The charges said a diocese IT employee had found disturbing images of young girls’ crotches on Father Shawn Ratigan’s computer which appeared to be photographs taken by the priest, Ratigan attempted suicide the next day, and the diocese moved the priest away from his post at St. Patrick’s Parish in the Northland.  In the meantime, the diocese made copies of all the disturbing images, gave Ratigan’s laptop to his family members, and said family members destroyed the computer.  The call to police only came after the diocese determined Ratigan still wasn’t staying away from children as ordered.

When I called the diocese and got little response, a photojournalist and I drove downtown where I sat in the diocese lobby until a spokeswoman came out to talk.

I asked Becky Summers why it took five months for the diocese to report Ratigan to police.

“You’ll have to ask them,” Summers said.  “We’ve been in contact with law enforcement from the beginning.”

It was just the first in an embarrassing series of gaffes by diocese leadership as police and prosecutors both strongly denied they’d had any contact about Ratigan until recently.  The diocese retracted Summers’ statement hours later and then explained they’d consulted with a KCPD captain who was part of the diocese’s independent review board.

It would later be revealed that from December 16 to April 8, Summers and other officials within the diocese warned either Bishop Finn or his right-hand man Monsignor Robert Murphy to call police or “do something” no fewer than three times.

Somebody screwed up bad.

THE CRIMINAL CASE

By this, I don’t mean the criminal case against Ratigan.

With so much time elapsing before contacting police and so much activity in that timespan, I thought surely there would be more fallout here.

If the prosecutors deemed the images found on Ratigan’s computer child pornography, then weren’t the diocese’s actions technically possession and distribution of it?  Like teachers, aren’t clergy mandated to report suspicions of child abuse?

As I called around to people connected to the case around July and tried to find out if the diocese was in trouble, I finally asked a source within KCPD if I was barking up the wrong tree.

“No,” he said.  “You found the tree.”

Micheal Mahoney, a reporter with decades more experience and infinitely better sources than me, broke the story a couple of months later that Bishop Finn would be summoned to testify in front of a Jackson County grand jury.

The grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese on October 14 on two misdemeanor counts of a mandated reporter failing to report child abuse suspicions.

Finn became the highest-ranking Catholic official in the U.S. (and just the second bishop in the world) charged with protecting an abusive priest.

THE TRIAL

“Hopefully, there won’t be a fire.”

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence openly acknowledged his overflowing courtroom.  As I watched from the far corner, the crowd of reporters and spectators just kept coming in despite a lack of seating or even standing room.  People simply spilled out into open space instead of lining the already-full walls, much to the dismay of people who arrived early enough to get a seat.

With this being a surprise bench trial, all facts of the case had been agreed upon by the prosecution and defense.  I’d later find out why.

Before the trial officially started, defense attorneys filed a motion to “sever parties,” meaning only Bishop Finn was on trial for that day.  I’d later find out why.

Both sides presented approximately 10-minute statements, and I noticed something odd about defense attorney J.R. Hobbs’ argument.  I wrote in my notes, “Looks like defense knows judge will hand down guilty verdict.”  I’d later find out why.

After a half hour court recess, Judge Torrence returned to announce his guilty verdict against Bishop Finn for one of the two misdemeanors.

The bishop stood and told the courtroom, “I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt that these events have caused.”

Bishop Finn reading from a written apology in court. (Photo taken by pool still photographer)

Prosecutors then informed the court they planned to drop the charges against the diocese.

While I’d recognized the signs, I certainly didn’t process the defense strategy as it was happening.  It’s difficult not to appreciate its brilliance in the end.

THE STRATEGY

“Why did you make the deal to drop the charges against the diocese?”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker looked at me, acknowledged it was a good question, and explained “there’s give and there’s take” in a complicated case like this one.  She insisted the guilty verdict came down on the party most responsible.

In one stroke, Peters Baker landed an historic conviction and let the other defendant go.

Prosecutors speaking with reporters following Bishop Finn’s trial. While Jean Peters Baker hailed the conviction as a victory, she spent much of this press conference answering questions on the nature of the deal she made with the diocese.

Both sides wanted something.

Prosecutors wanted the conviction and to keep child victims off the witness stand.  Defense attorneys wanted a quick trial with limited media coverage and the diocese’s hands clean in the end (a diocese conviction would’ve been devastating in light of pending civil lawsuits).

By dropping their rights to a trial by jury and agreeing to facts that would surely convict the bishop, defense attorneys made a deal with prosecutors to drop charges against the diocese when a verdict came down.

With Finn safely under the bus, the diocese had no criminal convictions as they moved on to fighting civil lawsuits worth tens of millions.

Brilliant.  Sad, but brilliant nonetheless.

THE UPSHOT

As I stood waiting for Judge Torrence to come back with his verdict, I looked down and to my right to see two women and a man praying silently in the courtroom gallery.  The women were rubbing rosaries.

I asked Brea Roper, a Kansas City Catholic parishioner, why she’d come to the trial.

“We’re here in support of Bishop Finn and the diocese,” Roper said.  “We’re here in support of truth.”

She then added she was praying for Ratigan’s victims and the judge.  Roper later gave me an interview outside the courtroom explaining she didn’t believe Finn ever did anything intentionally wrong and she was ready for him to continue as her shepherd.

I’m religious, so I understand the concept of faith in a higher power.  It scares me, however, when we apply that faith to spiritual leaders.

I don’t believe for a second Finn will be in Kansas City this time next year, and I have my doubts about this time next month.  Once Finn’s two-year probation is completed, the criminal conviction disappears from his record.

In the year-plus since Ratigan’s arrest, the diocese commissioned a highly-critical audit of its own practices and hired former prosecutor Jenifer Valenti as an ombudsman to handle any reports of child abuse.  I’ve spoken to Valenti before, and she seems qualified and dedicated to her mission.

Keep in mind, though, past self-policing didn’t work.

This is a diocese that only two years before the discovery of the images on Ratigan’s laptop settled a lawsuit for $10 million.  That case involved 47 plaintiffs and 12 priests.

Judge Torrence handed down nine probation terms against Finn and the diocese.  They include mandatory reporter training, a partnership with the FBI, and the establishment of a fund for abuse victims’ counseling.

I hope prosecutors live up to their pledge to enforce those probation terms.

We’re past trusting blind faith.

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The Dirt Rule Doesn’t Apply…And Getting Angry

January 15, 2011

I have to admit I censored myself.  At the very least, I put a muzzle on for a few weeks.

From the moment I learned about Wesley Watson’s background and his alleged attack on a woman in Kansas City, Kansas, I knew I’d probably write a blog post about it.  Just not right then.

Wesley Watson

Frankly, I didn’t want to write about something so appalling and frustrating and preventable in the same week my car radio played The Little Drummer Boy on the drive to work.

Impersonating an officer, kidnapping, rape…pa rum pum pum pum.

THE (ALLEGED) CRIME

A rape survivor:  “I was very sad.  There were a lot of tears, but it wasn’t for me.”

On Monday, December 20, a woman walked out of a KCK Walmart only to be greeted by a 55-year-old man claiming to be a police detective.  She later told police the so-called detective accused her of shoplifting, forced her into a vehicle, drove her to a Best Buy parking lot only a few hundred yards away, and raped her.

It was 1:30 p.m.  Broad daylight.

I’ve talked about being angry as a reporter.  Like I mentioned after covering Scott Roeder’s murder trial, there are times a story infuriates you because of a somewhat rare combination.  Something so horrible allegedly happens to someone who unequivocally doesn’t deserve it.

This wasn’t a burglary with a few hundred dollars lost.  This wasn’t a drug dealer shooting victim who was already playing roulette with his life.  It was the kidnapping and rape of a woman shopping just before Christmas.

Then, we found out 55-year-old Wesley Watson’s criminal history, and anger suddenly seemed an entirely insufficient word.

THE BACKGROUND

The aforementioned rape survivor:  “You know, in my case, he was on parole for rape and he was only on parole for a couple of months.  And here we go again.”

A jury in Sedgwick County, Kansas, convicted Wesley Watson of attempted rape in 1977.

While out on parole in 1980, he followed a 14-year-old girl home from school in Wichita and raped her.  Once again, a jury convicted him of a violent sex offense.

That 14-year-old girl thought Watson would serve a prison term of 60 years to life.

The Kansas Parole Board released him in late 2009, less than half of his minimum sentence.

THE SURVIVOR

The rape survivor:  “The worst part is there’s another victim.”

The day after I did the initial story on Watson’s latest alleged rape, I was truly surprised to get a phone call from Wichita.

Since Watson had convictions where I used to report, I’d already tipped off my old station they might have a regional tie to a story in Kansas City.  They aired the basics that night.

The 14-year-old girl, now a 44-year-old rape survivor still living in Wichita, saw it.  She was furious and wanted to talk.  I’m grateful KWCH shared the interview with us.

I don’t think Lisa Clancy Nolla wanted to say, “I told you so.”  I considered her message more along the lines of, “Will you let what shouldn’t have happened once happen again?”

THE “NON-PREDATOR”

Clancy Nolla:  “How about protecting the community instead of letting somebody out early just because they’ve been in there for 30 years and they haven’t raped anybody else?  That’s because they’re in prison.”

When the parole board released Watson, prosecutors fought it.

Nola Foulston, the current Sedgwick County DA, was an assistant DA back in the early ’80’s and prosecuted Watson’s case.  Foulston’s office believed he was still dangerous and didn’t want him out in the public.  Her office would lose.

Prosecutors tried to have Watson labeled a sexually violent predator and be remanded to Larned Mental Hospital in western Kansas indefinitely.  Through a civil suit against Watson, prosecutors could virtually guarantee he’d never be a free man.

During a jury trial, prosecutors had one psychiatrist testify Watson was dangerous.  The defense had two, including one of the state’s mental health experts employed at Larned.

Foulston told KWCH’s Kim Hynes the Larned expert testified Watson was “too old to still have those urges” to hurt someone anymore.

I encourage you to re-read the previous sentence as I still have difficulty with it.

Based on that testimony, the jury deadlocked.  Watson was freed from a jail in Wichita in February 2010.  Kansas City learned his name in less than a year.

THE DIRT RULE

Clancy Nolla:  “It’s going to be with her for the rest of her life, and it could have been prevented, quite frankly.”

George Brett once said something I thought was extremely profound.  He called it “The Dirt Rule.”

The Kansas City Royals legend said, “The farther you get from the infield dirt, the easier it looks.”

Anyone who knows me well knows how huge a fan I am of Brett’s, but what made me love this quote was its timing.  Brett didn’t say this during his playing days to fend off critics while he toiled through a rare slump.  He said it well after he was retired.

I tried to apply the Dirt Rule to this story.  I tried really hard to give credence to that Larned expert’s testimony.  Surely, that expert knows something I don’t.  Surely, an extenuating circumstance.

Then, I think of that sentence.  A convicted, 54-year-old rapist “too old to still have those urges.”  I think of those words coming out of the mouth of a mental health expert for the state of Kansas.

Then, I get angry all over again.

ANOTHER Background Check Story…With A Twist. There’s A Priest This Time.

June 17, 2010

Well, I didn’t expect this.  Only a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a person in a position of leadership with those being led unaware of a criminal history (a sex offense, at that).

On Thursday?  The same.

Father Leslie “Doug” Campbell was arrested last August in a Wichita park.  Undercover officers conducting a sting operation in Wichita’s Riverside Park said Campbell and another man were caught undressing together.

Father Leslie "Doug" Campbell's August 2009 Mugshot

However, the 2009 offense wasn’t what interested me.  It was the 1988 conviction for sexual battery of a law enforcement officer.

In June 1988, an undercover officer arrested Campbell for touching the officer in another Wichita park.  As he was cuffed, court records show Campbell said he was embarrassed to be seen in public in handcuffs.  He also said he was a priest.

Campbell’s trial was scheduled to start Thursday, but it was continued by one week when prosecutors tried to enter this past conviction into evidence.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

So the Catholic Diocese of Wichita found out back in 1988, right?  It was somehow notified or this bit of criminal news surely reached someone’s ears?  No.  At least, not according to the diocese.

The diocese says Campbell somehow handled this legal matter on his own and managed to keep it away from the bishop until last year’s arrest.

So how did the diocese go from 1988 to 2009 without knowing one of its priests sexually assaulted a cop?  A couple of hours after I asked the diocese this question, I got a call back from a public relations official and an HR guy.

Three years ago, the diocese says it began doing background checks on all of its employees, including priests.  Rather, I should say the diocese began checking backgrounds.  HR checked three public offender databases, all online and free.  I’ve used several of the same databases myself.

The problem?  The Kansas Sex Offender Registry was created in 1994.  Campbell’s 1988 conviction wouldn’t have shown up.

It should be noted Campbell was arrested on June 7, 1988.  He was transferred from a parish in Columbus, Kansas, to parishes in Fredonia and Neodesha on June 28, 1988.  The diocese maintains this is a coincidence and it didn’t know of Campbell’s past until his 2009 arrest.

COULD IT HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?

Yes.

For $30, the diocese could have had a certified, name-based background check from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.  KBI records date back to 1939 and cover all felonies, misdemeanors, and Class C assaults (basically, everything but a traffic ticket).

Barring a random misplaced record, Campbell’s 1988 conviction would have popped up.

Why the diocese does not pay for the certified background check is either an issue of money or ignorance (simply not knowing this was a possibility and they could have had a better criminal history for $30).

THE REACTION

One of Campbell’s parishioners was in the courtroom Thursday morning.  She says she was still trying to wrap her mind around the idea her priest had been arrested last year when prosecutors tried to present the 1988 conviction.

This is a woman who says she’s done her best to stick up for the religion she loves, and she’s frustrated Catholicism has become the butt of jokes to many.  However, shock and frustration was evident after the hearing.

When I spoke to her over the phone late Thursday, you could tell it had been a long day.  We’re a few years past when “Catholic Priest Does Wrong” was a mainstream headline, but this brought it back for her.

THE TRIAL

The judge in the case ruled Campbell’s 1988 conviction won’t be allowed at trial, and I lean (slightly) toward the thinking that’s best.

Prosecutors tried to enter it into evidence under a statute called 60-455.  It allows for prior “bad acts” to be presented to show the defendant’s character.

There are instances where this might seem appropriate (and I’ve covered such cases), but it often sends up a red flag to me as a slippery slope.  The judge told the city prosecutor, “You only presented this to make me not like the defendant.”

Campbell’s alleged actions from last August, and last August alone, will be tried.  His criminal history will be part of his sentencing if he’s found guilty.

For now, he’s on “sabbatical” from active ministry in Wichita, and the diocese in Wichita may face the decision of continuing to check backgrounds as is or spend the money for something more thorough.

15 Things I Took From Scott Roeder’s Sentencing

April 2, 2010

Alright, I’m unoriginal.

A couple of months ago, I wrote 15 Things I Took From Scott Roeder’s Murder Trial.  As I prepared to cover his sentencing hearing, I knew I’d make a new post about it.  Surely, however, not another list.

Something would stand out about this hearing.  The judge’s sentencing decision.  Roeder’s statement.  The Tiller family’s statement.  An outburst in the courtroom.  Something.

When the three-week trial gives you 15 things to write about, a one-day sentencing hearing will surely only give you one or two topics to latch onto.

I was wrong.

Scott Roeder shouting at prosecutors as he's led out of the courtroom following his sentencing hearing. (AP Photo/Jeff Tuttle, Pool)

Judge Warren Wilbert gave Scott Roeder the “Hard 50” for killing perhaps the most well-known abortion provider in the nation, Dr. George Tiller.  A life sentence was a foregone conclusion as it’s mandated by Kansas state law for anyone convicted of first degree premeditated murder.  The question was whether Roeder would be eligible for parole in 25 or 50 years.

This was Roeder’s second chance to speak in court, and we all knew he’d try to make the most of his soapbox.

This was the Tiller family’s first chance to speak to his murderer, and you have to pay attention to words from such a private family.  You might never hear their perspective again (I don’t think we can say the same for Mr. Roeder).

Jeanne Tiller, Dr. George Tiller's widow, hugs a family member during Scott Roeder's sentencing hearing. (AP Photo/Jeff Tuttle, Pool)

So at the end of an exhausting 15-hour day, I collected my thoughts and realized there was too much to write about.  I’d again underestimated this case.  I needed another list.

15 THINGS I TOOK FROM SCOTT ROEDER’S SENTENCING

  1. I’m now slightly frightened of prosecutor Ann Swegle.  I’ve never seen the woman so angry as she was on Thursday.  As she described Roeder’s actions and his words in court, she shot him a glance that almost looked like she could have taken down several courtroom security deputies had she tried to get to him.
  2. “The blood of babies on your hands, Nola Foulston…and Ann Swegle…and Kim Parker!”  Roeder shouted this at prosecutors as he was led from the courtroom.  It was his last and loudest outburst of the day.
  3. (Continuum of #3) Roeder’s outbursts removed all sense of martyrdom and maturity he’d tried to build up (I stress tried) during his trial.  Roeder was cool, calm, and collected at trial.  I honestly believe he was trying to present himself to the jury as a rational man in a world with an unjust law.  This would have been a tough sell regardless of his courtroom demeanor.  On Thursday, he blew it.
  4. The victim impact statement from Dr. Tiller’s family was a good one.  The first 10 minutes in an 18-minute speech focused on the late doctor instead of the man who took his life.  It covered Dr. Tiller’s life well, moved on to calling Roeder’s actions “terrorism,” and left with Tiller’s loved ones on the high ground.
  5. About 15 minutes into his statement, Roeder began a 25-minute reading of another anti-abortionist (and fellow murderer of an abortion provider) Paul Hill’s book.  Really?  I understand briefly quoting someone, but surely your own words are more genuine than reading from a book.
  6. After talking to many of the players in this case, I know it took them several days after the trial to decompress.  I wonder how long it will take for the stress to subside this time.
  7. Scott Roeder will never regret his actions.  I wrote this in my previous Roeder post, and in my mind, Thursday only reaffirmed it.
  8. Something else that bears repeating for journalistic integrity’s sake.  My abortion beliefs have not changed.  I’m not going to share what those are, but this case, trial, and sentencing did nothing to change them.
  9. “Why are we even here?”  This was the reaction from a Kansas City TV reporter after I told him Roeder had at least a 15-page written statement prepared (turns out it was far more than 15 pages).  The reporter rolled his eyes from across the room, began laughing, and I thought he was making fun of me at first.  Then, he began a short rant asking why Roeder wasn’t already in prison if he’d done so much to admit and champion his murder.  You should have been here for the trial, friend.
  10. Roeder’s defense attorney Mark Rudy checked his cell phone during Roeder’s statement.
  11. It was surreal to listen to Roeder’s four character witnesses.  The KC Star’s Judy Thomas called it a “parade” of witnesses, and it certainly felt like a circus.  None were allowed to give their full intended statements because they kept veering into their views on abortion, but that’s not what struck me.  It was their arguments.  One said she’d never heard Roeder curse (an excellent attribute if you’re applying to be an elementary school teacher, but not much good here).  Another said he’d never seen Roeder show any violent tendencies (well, shooting another human being in the head at point blank range inside a church sort of trumps your observation, doesn’t it?).
  12. (Continuum of #11) Regina Dinwiddie, another activist who supports violence against abortion providers, looked legitimately disappointed when Judge Wilbert told her there was no way Roeder was getting probation, as if she thought she had a shot at persuading him otherwise.
  13. I got a shout out over Twitter and on-air from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.  I know this is supposed to be about the hearing and I don’t get pleasure from covering other people’s suffering, but still…sweet.
  14. I thought people would get bored as they watched our online streaming video of the hearing and the feed KWCH aired on our sister station, the Kansas CW.  A good portion of Thursday was extremely dull.  I was wrong.  Dozens of people messaged me they were glued to their computers and TV’s all day long.
  15. The Hard 50 was an appropriate sentence.  I don’t think a standard life sentence with parole eligibility in 25 years would have mattered much to 52-year-old Roeder himself.  There’s a good chance Roeder won’t be alive in 25 years.  Prison has a long-term, wear-and-tear way of lowering one’s life expectancy.  However, what if someone my age (27) decided to follow in Roeder’s footsteps?  A half century is a far more daunting sentence and message than 25 years.

Thanks for your time reading this blog post.  Feel free to comment or join the discussion.

Cliff

The Nerve(s)!

March 8, 2010

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?

15 Things I Took From Scott Roeder’s Trial

February 8, 2010

I'm the guy in blue looking like something has gone wrong. I may or may not be talking to a producer. (Courtesy: Travis Heying, Wichita Eagle.)

A year ago, I walked away from Justin Thurber’s capital murder trial physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.  I’d seen and heard so much I couldn’t tell KWCH viewers, and though I explained nearly every moment in court through an online blog, it still didn’t seem like I’d expressed everything.

The day after the trial, I saw colleague Ron Sylvester’s web article on what he’d learned from the trial.  I found myself agreeing with pretty much every point the Wichita Eagle’s court reporter made.  So…I’m stealing the idea.

Scott Roeder’s murder trial drew national and even international attention.  The man accused of murdering one of the most well-known abortion providers in America, Dr. George Tiller, took the stand in his own defense.  Roeder admitted to killing Dr. Tiller, but denied murdering him.  He wanted a platform to advocate killing abortion providers, but also wanted a mere manslaughter charge for doing so.  The pro-choice and anti-abortion activists of this country watched Roeder’s trial knowing very well it could shape the issue’s debate for the foreseeable future.

I got to cover it…crime to verdict.

I don’t think court reporters enjoy covering death and suffering (at least, I don’t).  A crime that ruins or even ends a victim’s life isn’t something to be relished.  I think the process of justice is more what interests us, whatever the jury decides that may be.

15 THINGS I TOOK FROM SCOTT ROEDER’S MURDER TRIAL

  1. There are extremists on both sides of the abortion issue.  I think there can be a stereotype that extremists only exist in the anti-abortion world.  Not true.  One man told a colleague he was threatening violence if Roeder was acquitted.
  2. Desk jobs are tougher than I thought.  How in the world can someone sit in a chair for 8+ hours a day and walk away with a tight back?  I now know the answer to this question.  What the hell?
  3. “Nice shot, Scott.”  Though Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry said he didn’t support Roeder’s actions, one of his followers carried a sign with this message around the Sedgwick County Courthouse.  A photographer from the Fox affiliate in Kansas City noticed it.
  4. Roeder’s matter-of-factness on the stand as he described killing Dr. Tiller was chilling.  I described it on air as though he was talking about his drive to work.  Prosecutors called it “chillingly horrific.”
  5. I cut off everything outside the trial.  No sports page, no checking my bank account online, no Facebook…okay, maybe a little Facebook.
  6. Defense attorneys were aware of the wide-ranging effects the Roeder trial could have, but they couldn’t allow themselves to consider that.  I wonder if that still weighed heavily on their minds.
  7. (Continuum of #6) Defense attorney Mark Rudy’s voice quivered as he gave closing arguments.  I thought I was making this up in my head, but several other reporters at the courthouse said they heard it, too.
  8. My abortion beliefs have not changed.  I’m not going to share what my beliefs are, but this case and this trial did nothing to change them.
  9. A pen.  Yes, I took a pen from Judge James Fleetwood’s courtroom (the media room for the trial), and I now feel the need to get him a whole box of new pens.
  10. Scott Roeder will never regret his actions.
  11. During the entire trial and for several days after the verdict, my only dreams were of the trial.  I can only assume this is what the actual players in the trial experienced, but on a far more intense level.
  12. I believe Roeder planned to return to Burlington, Kansas, to retrieve the Taurus .22 caliber handgun he used to kill Dr. Tiller for reasons other than what he said in court.  Roeder testified he wanted to get the gun back just to keep it as a part of his gun collection.  For a man who said he was so against harming anyone other than Tiller, this doesn’t make sense.  A child could have found the gun he buried in a large dirt pile.  Roeder wanted this gun as a trophy.
  13. I was angry when Dr. Tiller was killed.  This is no reflection of my beliefs on abortion.  It’s just something you feel sometimes as a reporter.  No different than covering a child abuse case or a rape case or any other story with a victim who didn’t deserve the crime they suffered.
  14. My attitude was probably considered “testy” by the end of the trial.  I’m thankful for coworkers who understand when I say (with less tact than normal), “Yeah, whatever,”…I really mean, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.”
  15. It’s not over.  Though I have no factual information to base this on, I don’t believe for a second that Wichita is finished as one of the nation’s hotbeds in the abortion controversy.

Thanks for your time reading this blog post.  Feel free to comment or join the discussion.

Cliff