Demystifying the Courthouse<br />Tips for covering civil and criminal trials<br />Texas Center for Community Journalism wo...
The Ideal<br /> <br />http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechtokillamockingbird.html<br /> <br />http://...
The Reality<br />Most lawyers aren’t Atticus Finch<br />Most cases don’t have chiffarobe  moments<br />Trials are dramas i...
Basic truths<br />Court clerks and coordinators are your best friends<br />Read everything in the court file<br />
Criminal Cases<br /><ul><li>Try to do research well before trial
Read the file
Watch for pretrial hearings</li></li></ul><li>Public Access<br /><ul><li>Trials are public assemblies and presumed open
Very limited portions, such as a rape victim’s testimony, can be closed for good reason.
Court records are presumed open, though they aren’t subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
Judges must have compelling reasons to issue gag orders</li></li></ul><li>Before Trial<br />Pretrial hearings could determ...
Whether controversial testimony is excluded
Whether some charges are dropped
Whether a juvenile is tried as an adult
Whether a trial will be moved or delayed, parts might be closed or parties will be gagged</li></li></ul><li>Jury selection...
Chance to find out jurors’ names, occupations, etc. – Ask for juror cards
Ask judge for jury questionnaire, if used
Jurors can’t be excluded for reasons of race, gender or religion
DO NOT try to contact jurors before trial ends</li></li></ul><li>Opening Statements<br />Lawyers for both sides lay out th...
Evidence/Witnesses<br /><ul><li>Ask lawyers beforehand or during breaks about witness lineup so you’ll know when key eleme...
If you want to look at exhibits, ask judge during breaks or at the end of the day.
Ask lawyers for copies of new documents/motions filed during the trial</li></li></ul><li>Sifting the Evidence<br /><ul><li...
What evidence created reasonable doubt?
What testimony drew visible juror reactions
What was not presented that lawyers said would be?
Whose testimony was called into question effectively? </li></li></ul><li>Burden of Proof<br /><ul><li>Prosecution bears th...
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Demystifying the courthouse

  1. 1. Demystifying the Courthouse<br />Tips for covering civil and criminal trials<br />Texas Center for Community Journalism workshop<br />May 26, 2011<br />Linda P. Campbell <br />
  2. 2. The Ideal<br /> <br />http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechtokillamockingbird.html<br /> <br />http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8TgqenWW0I<br />
  3. 3. The Reality<br />Most lawyers aren’t Atticus Finch<br />Most cases don’t have chiffarobe moments<br />Trials are dramas in three acts<br />
  4. 4. Basic truths<br />Court clerks and coordinators are your best friends<br />Read everything in the court file<br />
  5. 5. Criminal Cases<br /><ul><li>Try to do research well before trial
  6. 6. Read the file
  7. 7. Watch for pretrial hearings</li></li></ul><li>Public Access<br /><ul><li>Trials are public assemblies and presumed open
  8. 8. Very limited portions, such as a rape victim’s testimony, can be closed for good reason.
  9. 9. Court records are presumed open, though they aren’t subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
  10. 10. Judges must have compelling reasons to issue gag orders</li></li></ul><li>Before Trial<br />Pretrial hearings could determine;<br /><ul><li>Whether a confession is admissible
  11. 11. Whether controversial testimony is excluded
  12. 12. Whether some charges are dropped
  13. 13. Whether a juvenile is tried as an adult
  14. 14. Whether a trial will be moved or delayed, parts might be closed or parties will be gagged</li></li></ul><li>Jury selection<br /><ul><li>Lawyers lay out the case
  15. 15. Chance to find out jurors’ names, occupations, etc. – Ask for juror cards
  16. 16. Ask judge for jury questionnaire, if used
  17. 17. Jurors can’t be excluded for reasons of race, gender or religion
  18. 18. DO NOT try to contact jurors before trial ends</li></li></ul><li>Opening Statements<br />Lawyers for both sides lay out their view of the case, what they plan to present to the jury, what they expect the evidence to show<br />Take note of key elements. Try to keep track during the trial to see if they present what they said they would, or if key pieces are missing.<br />
  19. 19. Evidence/Witnesses<br /><ul><li>Ask lawyers beforehand or during breaks about witness lineup so you’ll know when key elements are expected.
  20. 20. If you want to look at exhibits, ask judge during breaks or at the end of the day.
  21. 21. Ask lawyers for copies of new documents/motions filed during the trial</li></li></ul><li>Sifting the Evidence<br /><ul><li>What testimony pointed to the defendants guilt?
  22. 22. What evidence created reasonable doubt?
  23. 23. What testimony drew visible juror reactions
  24. 24. What was not presented that lawyers said would be?
  25. 25. Whose testimony was called into question effectively? </li></li></ul><li>Burden of Proof<br /><ul><li>Prosecution bears the burden of proof
  26. 26. Defense doesn’t have to present witnesses or evidence, just persuade jurors that prosecution haven’t proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt
  27. 27. Defendant doesn’t have to testify. That is not to be taken as proof of anything, positive or negative.</li></li></ul><li>Closing Statements<br />Listen to see whether lawyers make same key points as opening, and whether they proved those points<br />
  28. 28. Jury Deliberations/Verdict<br /><ul><li>If you can’t hang around for the jury, ask lawyers or court clerk to alert you when the jury finishes
  29. 29. There’s usually a short time before the verdict is formally announced
  30. 30. Watch for victim impact statements
  31. 31. Jurors might talk afterward but don’t have to
  32. 32. Ask for verdict form</li></li></ul><li>Death penalty cases<br />After a guilt/innocence verdict, a separate sentencing hearing is held<br />
  33. 33. Federal Cases<br /><ul><li>After guilt/innocence verdict, judge sets a sentencing date
  34. 34. Sentencing is always by judge</li></li></ul><li>Civil Cases<br /><ul><li>Read the file
  35. 35. Talk to lawyers and parties before trial</li></li></ul><li>Petition/Case Filings<br /><ul><li>Look for details in the Original Petition and and Amended Petitions
  36. 36. Defendants’ Answers usually are boilerplate
  37. 37. Look for depositions and answers to interrogatories, medical records, affidavits, financial records
  38. 38. Once trial has started, it’s harder to get access to case file</li></li></ul><li>Trial Proceedings<br /><ul><li>Jury selection
  39. 39. Opening statements
  40. 40. Witnesses/testimony
  41. 41. Exhibits
  42. 42. Watch for amount of money at stake
  43. 43. Closing Statements
  44. 44. Jury deliberations</li></li></ul><li>Sifting the Evidence<br /><ul><li>What is the plaintiff’s key claim? How is he/she going to establish harm?
  45. 45. What records either prove or refute the claim?
  46. 46. Is there emotional testimony? How did jury react? How credible were the experts?
  47. 47. Are there definitive documents? Or is the case mostly based on perception/opinion?
  48. 48. Is there a money trail? </li></li></ul><li>Verdict<br /><ul><li>Standard of proof is preponderance of the evidence, i.e., more likely than not
  49. 49. Verdict can be 10-2, unlike criminal case, which must be unanimous
  50. 50. Ask for verdict form, which has questions jurors had to answer
  51. 51. Punitive damages require separate hearing
  52. 52. Civil jurors usually more willing to talk after</li></li></ul><li>The Story Line<br /><ul><li>Find the drama:
  53. 53. Who was harmed?
  54. 54. How much is the damage worth?
  55. 55. Who can readers relate to and why?</li></li></ul><li>Family law cases<br /><ul><li>Divorce hearings often are open
  56. 56. Look for dispute s over property and children
  57. 57. Watch for judges’ demeanor, sensitivity</li></li></ul><li>Appeals<br />Trial wins could be meaningless if tossed out on appeal, either at the intermediate appeal court or high court <br />Death penalty appeals are mandatory and go straight to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals<br />In civil context, an appeals court might uphold the jury verdict but reduce damage award<br />

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