• Spencer Norris

This stakeout tastes like cardboard

They never mention CQ’ing this s$%t in All the President’s Men.

When I envisioned my future in reporting, I didn’t consider the reality of the courthouse stakeout.

Mehrdad Fotoohighiam’s arson trial was instructive in many ways. You’re often warned before getting into this profession that not every moment is going to be a world-shaking gotcha. This was a taste of both the more mundane qualities of reporting, and the reasons why this profession is important.

I was on general assignment beginning at 8 a.m. that morning and knew I’d have to cover the trial later that day. I figured it’d be a quick in-and-out deal; the testimony of various witnesses had taken an insane number of hours over the past few days, so I felt reasonably sure that I’d punch in my hours and that the jury wouldn’t start deliberating until the next day.

No such luck. Counsel had entered closing arguments. The stakeout was about to begin.

I was always curious about the mythic, romanticized stakeout. Typically you envision two people sitting in a car, maybe wearing 5 o’clock shadows and trenchcoats, and drinking bad coffee, waiting for an unsavory character to trot out of a local cash bond shop or strip club.

I'm clearly watching too many movies. This was the county courthouse. Just a bunch of people in suits, none of whom wanted to talk to each other (and certainly not a reporter), itching for the jury to adjourn for the night. This was a major case, but I’d just worked 16 hours. There had been no movement on this since they entered deliberations around 1:40 p.m., and the clock was nearing midnight. Enough was enough.

Eventually we were given sweet release. Counsel was called back into the courtroom, the jury told the judge that they want to take a break, and everyone was sent home.

Again, this was a serious case. A man was on trial for allegedly paying an employee to burn down a woman’s trailer, and he had other charges pending against him for conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder. Sounds interesting on paper, but, good lord… waiting on jury deliberations is as appealing as chewing cardboard.

(A side note: there is allegedly a system that the courthouse uses to notify the judge and counsel that the jury is coming out of deliberations. If this notification system exists, the press is not given access to it. That, or it doesn't actually exist. Either way, I don’t know of a good reason for this.)

(A second side note: before continuing, it’s worth noting that the accused was found not guilty; this blog should in no way be construed as passing judgement on the outcome of the case or the accused. It’s merely a reflection on procedure.)

There’s a job to be done. In moments like these though, you begin to wonder about the value of the job. With 11 hours to ponder the nature of the case and why we were covering it, I got to asking myself what value the public would get out of coverage of this trial. After all, the alleged offense would have occurred within the scope of just a limited number of actors. What value does the public get out of this trial other than a good serial story?

I think the value of court coverage comes from an accounting of the procedure itself. In my home town, the corruption of court procedure led to the unfair sentencing of thousands of kids to for-profit juvenile detention centers. This isn’t an exaggeration; just Google “Kids for Cash.”

Maybe that’s the whole point of putting a spotlight on the court system. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that the value of court reporting is a matter of accountability for the court itself. Is the system working as expected? Is it working well?

Serial got this right in season three, which examined the day-to-day of the Cleveland court system and what a ‘typical’ interaction with the court system looks like. The point wasn’t a compelling story for the sake of storytelling, but to take a hard look at how the court system works for the average person. Process, my friend! Process!

I don’t think that Fotoohighiam’s trial is going to take the world by storm the way Serial did, but it’s important to ensure that things are copacetic in the courthouse. I’m always concerned that I can’t believe my own eyes and ears, and I think that paranoia can be useful, but by most appearances, things are fine. It’s worth the stakeout to make sure that that’s the case.

But please, don’t make me do it again for a little while.

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