J4410 Covering Courts Sept24 09


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Professor Neil Foote's lecture notes on covering courts for the University of North Texas.

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J4410 Covering Courts Sept24 09

  1. 1. Covering Courts JOUR 4410 - Reporting of Public Affairs Professor Neil Foote University of North Texas Sept. 24, 2009
  2. 2. Today’s class <ul><li>Writing style/tips </li></ul><ul><li>First Amendment quiz </li></ul><ul><ul><li>http://www.splc.org/falawtest/ </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Court Reporting </li></ul><ul><ul><li>NewsU.org with Criminal Justice Journalists </li></ul></ul>http://www.justicejournalism.org/crimeguide/
  3. 3. Types of Court ** In New York State, the highest court is the Court of Appeals and the trial court is called the Supreme Court.
  4. 4. What Federal Courts Do <ul><li>Federal courts decide cases that involve the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes, or laws, passed by Congress. There are three levels of federal courts: </li></ul><ul><li>U.S. District Court. The first step. It holds trials and hears federal cases. </li></ul><ul><li>U.S. Court of Appeals. Decisions made in district courts are appealed here. </li></ul><ul><li>U.S. Supreme Court. The highest court in the land. It decides disputes between states and determines its docket from appeals from federal appeals courts and from state court systems. </li></ul>
  5. 5. What State Courts Do <ul><li>State courts decide cases that involve state constitutions and laws passed by the state legislature. Court systems vary by state, but often include these levels: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Municipal court, such as city, county or magistrate court. It handles misdemeanors, small claims, traffic offenses, and preliminary felony hearings. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>State trial court. It handles felonies, misdemeanors and civil cases. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Appeals court. It handles appeals from trial courts. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Supreme Court. Highest state court. It hears appeals from appeals courts. </li></ul></ul>
  6. 6. Do Your Homework <ul><li>Learn how to use a court docket </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Find out what’s going on </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Get a copy of the case </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Go to the court house and pull it </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Go online ( http://justice.dentoncounty.com/ ) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Talk to the attorneys on both sides of the case </li></ul><ul><li>Learn more about the attorneys involved </li></ul><ul><ul><li>http://martindale.com </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Pull the original police reports </li></ul><ul><li>Talk to the individuals involved in the suit </li></ul>
  7. 7. Arraignment <ul><li>Defendant formally enters a plea (guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere). </li></ul><ul><li>Typically, unless a defendant has previously reached an agreement with the prosecution, a plea of not guilty is entered. </li></ul><ul><li>Defendants do not plead &quot;innocent,&quot; but plead &quot;not guilty&quot; because the legal process is designed to determine guilt or lack of guilt — technically it is not a process of determining innocence. </li></ul>
  8. 9. First Appearance <ul><li>After a person has been arrested and charged with a crime, the defendant has a right to an initial hearing. </li></ul><ul><li>At that hearing, a prosecutor presents a summary of the evidence and requests a setting of bond or that bond be refused. </li></ul><ul><li>Here, a prosecutor typically provides a bare bones recitation of the crime, how the defendant is linked to the crime, the circumstances of the arrest and whether the defendant has made any admissions. </li></ul><ul><li>The judge appoints a defense lawyer for the hearing if there is no attorney present. The defense attorney usually provides some general background of the defendant as part of a request for a low bond. </li></ul>
  9. 10. Preliminary Hearing <ul><li>After the bond is set, a defendant usually has the right to what is often called a preliminary hearing, which involves presentation of evidence before a judge. </li></ul><ul><li>At that time, the judge rules on whether there is probably cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed the crime. </li></ul>
  10. 11. Charges <ul><li>Formal charges are contained in an indictment or criminal information. </li></ul><ul><li>An indictment is returned by a grand jury, made up of citizens who hear testimony and receive evidence before voting on what charges to bring. </li></ul><ul><li>The grand jury is overseen by prosecutors, and defendants have no right to be involved in the process. </li></ul><ul><li>A criminal information is a charge drawn by a prosecutor and filed in court. </li></ul><ul><li>In the state courts, this has the same effect as an indictment. </li></ul>
  11. 12. Charges cont. <ul><li>In the federal courts, a criminal information charging a felony cannot be filed without consent of the defendant. </li></ul><ul><li>In many instances, preliminary hearings are not held because a grand jury returns an indictment or a criminal information is filed prior to the hearing. </li></ul><ul><li>The filing of such charges sends a case directly to another judge for arraignment. </li></ul>
  12. 13. Pretrial release <ul><li>If the charge has a bond set by statute, a defendant may post bail at the police station and be released. </li></ul><ul><li>Many lesser charges, such as traffic violations and misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct carry a bond that can be posted without going to court immediately. </li></ul><ul><li>When defendants are accused of a crime or crimes that do not have statutory bonds , they remain in custody until a bond is set. </li></ul><ul><li>Once the bond is set, defendants may be released if they meet the conditions of the bond. </li></ul><ul><li>Most defendants accused of murder are ordered held without bond or an extremely high bond is set. </li></ul>
  13. 14. Pretrial proceedings <ul><li>In the period before a trial — whether days, weeks, months or even years — prosecutors and defense lawyers prepare to present their respective cases. </li></ul><ul><li>Pretrial proceedings can be a valuable source of information for journalists . </li></ul><ul><li>They can learn about the background of the case and write about how the case is proceeding. </li></ul>
  14. 15. Pretrial proceedings cont. <ul><li>Pretrial proceedings begin with the exchange of evidence between prosecutors and defense lawyers, a process known as “discovery.” </li></ul><ul><li>Defendants are entitled to receive, prior to trial, prosecution evidence that includes police reports, grand jury testimony, laboratory reports, statements made by the defendants, the names of expert witnesses, photographs, financial records, evidence of wiretapping and other surveillance, and, most significantly, any evidence that might help the accused demonstrate his or her innocence . </li></ul><ul><li>This is known as exculpatory evidence . Withholding such evidence by a prosecutor can be grounds for a new trial. </li></ul>
  15. 16. Pretrial proceedings cont. <ul><li>Defense lawyers typically attempt to limit or preclude prosecutors from presenting certain evidence , arguing that it was illegally obtained or is irrelevant. </li></ul><ul><li>Prosecutors may request that defendants supply evidence for comparison testing , such as blood, hair or saliva for DNA profiling or samples of their handwriting. </li></ul><ul><li>Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys are required to reveal publicly the contents of discovery materials , but pretrial disputes over these materials frequently provide opportunities for reporters to learn their nature and contents. </li></ul>
  16. 17. Pretrial motions <ul><li>A variety of motions may be filed before trial. </li></ul><ul><li>Rulings by judges on each motion may produce individual stories that help readers, listeners or viewers understand how a case is unfolding and being shaped for trial. </li></ul><ul><li>Many motions may contain attachments such as police reports, crime laboratory reports, grand jury transcripts and other information that would not otherwise be publicly disclosed prior to trial. </li></ul><ul><li>All of these motions potentially can generate news stories, particularly motions to move the trial, dismiss some or all of the charges or suppress evidence. </li></ul>
  17. 18. Plea bargaining <ul><li>Majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining. </li></ul><ul><li>These plea bargains are driven by a variety of reasons. Judges prefer to dispose of as many cases as possible to focus their time and effort on the most serious matters as well as attempt to keep the system from becoming backlogged. </li></ul><ul><li>Prosecutors seek plea deals to reduce their caseloads and keep the system moving. Speedy trial laws often require prosecutors to make plea deals. </li></ul>
  18. 19. Plea bargaining cont. <ul><li>In other instances, a weak case may prompt an offer to resolve it with a plea. </li></ul><ul><li>In most instances, a prosecutor will offer to drop some charges and agree to a lesser sentence in return for a guilty plea. </li></ul><ul><li>Defense attorneys often seek to negotiate a plea deal when evidence of guilt is strong. </li></ul><ul><li>Typically, defendants who refuse a deal and go to trial receive a longer prison sentence than someone who pleads guilty. </li></ul>
  19. 20. Learn the terms <ul><li>Plaintiff v. Defendant </li></ul><ul><li>Prosecutors, Defense attorneys, Public Defenders </li></ul><ul><li>Judges, Administrative Judges, Commissioners </li></ul><ul><li>Concurrent v. Consecutive Sentence </li></ul><ul><li>De Facto (of fact) v. De Jure (in law) </li></ul>
  20. 21. Learn the terms <ul><li>Misdemeanor v. Felony </li></ul><ul><li>Pardon v. Parole </li></ul><ul><li>Injunction: Court order preventing one or more parties from taking action. </li></ul><ul><li>Restraining Order/Temporary Restraining Order </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Judge’s decision forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted </li></ul></ul>
  21. 22. The Trial Process
  22. 24. Covering the trial <ul><li>Get a good seat – up close – if there isn’t a media table </li></ul><ul><li>Stay awake. Be Alert. </li></ul><ul><li>Listen carefully. </li></ul><ul><li>Ask questions, if possible, during breaks. </li></ul><ul><li>Take careful notes </li></ul><ul><li>Learn how to pace yourself, particularly with big trials, so you can make sure you’re in the courtroom during major testimony </li></ul>
  23. 25. Remember Your Job <ul><li>Trust no one. </li></ul><ul><li>Ask the attorneys on both sides of case </li></ul><ul><li>Talk to the judge if you can </li></ul><ul><li>Once a decision has been made, talk to the jurors, the plaintiff and defendants </li></ul><ul><li>Verify, verify, verify. </li></ul><ul><li>Report aggressively and tell a good story </li></ul>
  24. 26. Your Checklist – Court Stories <ul><li>The court name: Be accurate. Use the official name </li></ul><ul><li>Judge’s full name: correctly spelled </li></ul><ul><li>Specific charges: Check and double check </li></ul><ul><li>Avoid court jargon </li></ul><ul><ul><li>You have to understand it, but you don’t have to share it with your readers </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Recap case: Key facts – 5 Ws </li></ul><ul><li>Details/descriptions: Be efficient, concise and compelling </li></ul><ul><li>Use quotes from court case AND interviews </li></ul><ul><li>Be clear on “what happens next” </li></ul>
  25. 27. Your Checklist – Verdict Stories <ul><li>Clearly explain the decision </li></ul><ul><li>If a civil case, include the damages </li></ul><ul><li>Describe - jury deliberations </li></ul><ul><li>Get widespread reaction: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Talk to everyone </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Explain if verdict has any more implications in community, future cases like this </li></ul>
  26. 28. Words from the wise <ul><li>Gene Miller, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner </li></ul><ul><li>&quot;Get as much detail as you can possibly get into your notebook. You may not want it, but get it in your notebook. And don't just tell them it's ice cream; tell them what flavor of ice cream.&quot; (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=52&aid=21605&custom=Chip+On+Your+Shoulder%3A+Sharing+the+writing+life+with+Chip+Scanlan.&view=print) </li></ul>