Courthouse drama hits home
Why do I enjoy covering courts? It’s complicated.
Watching people who are facing the consequences for their actions reveals their true selves. I try to imagine what it must be like to be in custody. To have my freedom taken away. To have to live alongside some of society’s worst everyday behind bars. It scares the crap out of me.
Listening to the victims of crime in our community provides insight as to what nightmares some of my fellow human beings are forced to live with as a result of crime.
It’s also fascinating to learn all the behind-the-scenes details of how authorities work to keep our communities in the NWT safe. I’m intrigued by how the various levels of law enforcement — from police, to the courts, sheriffs and corrections — work together in relative harmony.
I carry a pocket-sized Criminal Code with me to help interpret who is on trial for what and how tough a penalty could be imposed (rarely are the maximum sentences ever even approached). The legalese is something I first started studying 30 years ago when I was first assigned courts coverage while I was a fairly young reporter with the Winnipeg Sun.
Now that was a challenge — the Winnipeg Law Courts complex is a huge place with a couple of dozen courtrooms, many of which could be active on any given day.
I remember the first time a lawyer cited new sentencing guidelines for Indigenous offenders. It was in the spring of 1999, and I was the first reporter in Manitoba to write about “Gladue factors,” which is a term I now hear every day during sentencing hearings.
What the Supreme Court said, in cases like R. v Gladue, and later in R. v Ipeelee, is that a sentencing judge must consider the unique systemic or background factors which may have played a part in bringing an Indigenous offender before the courts and the types of sentencing procedures and sanctions which may be appropriate in the circumstances because of their Indigenous background.
Being a white guy who had a typical suburban white upbringing in Montreal who was now living in Winnipeg — what Macleans called “the racist city in Canada” — I was one of those who was initially puzzled as to the need for such a policy.
But with that policy being discussed in court, I started to learn about the reasons behind it. I now fully appreciate the need to take into consideration the generally awful childhoods many Indigenous people have had to endure and the pain of colonialism and residential schools passed down through generations when deciding on punishment for crimes.
It’s not giving Indigenous offenders a break, or offering them an excuse to act badly, it’s admitting many of them just never had a fighting chance to lead a good life. And maybe a shorter sentence will allow them to build a better life — and that’s something not to be found behind bars.
But I digress.
In Yellowknife, I basically monitor three courtrooms, which is perfect for me at this point in my career. It generally means having to spend a couple of days a week in the courthouse. I enjoy helping out Cabin Radio by providing stories from courts, but being semi-retired and running my own small business, I wouldn’t have time to do much more.
I’ll leave the full-time coverage to full-time beat journalists, such as Brendan Burke from NNSL, John McFadden from CKLB and Richard Gleeson from CBC North. I also often see Moose FM’s Emelie Peacock sitting in the public gallery scribbling away.
One aspect to courts coverage is the truly heart-tugging takes of people who have legitimate tales of woe.
One of the tougher types of crimes to cover in a courtroom setting are sexual assaults.
Why are they harder to cover than other types of cases? Because, unless there is a trial where the victim testifies, often the woman’s story (I have yet to cover a sexual assault involving a woman on trial, so I’ll just reference when a man is charged) isn’t heard, so it can’t be told.
If a man pleads guilty to sexual assault, often times I’ll just catch up with the case during the sentencing phase.
So all I’m there to do is take notes of what is said by Crown prosecutors, defence counsel and the judge. If the woman has chosen not to provide a victim’s impact statement, then I wait to hear if the Crown offers anything from her via statements made to police.
Rarely have the victims been in court for a sentencing hearing. And even then, if they choose not to speak to a reporter — of course, I wouldn’t identify them in any way in my story — then my story mostly contains information about the offender. I’m covering what has been presented in open court. I can’t just make stuff up.
I do think it’s critical to understand what led to the crime being committed.
In the spirit of denouncing and deterring, it’s important to explain how the offender has ruined his life and also brought shame to his family. It’s important for the public to know what penalty will be imposed.
It’s crucial to print what the Crown and judge have to say to the offender — and, ultimately to the public, as they see us reporters in the gallery — so perhaps some creep or pervert out there will think twice before committing a crime against a woman.
But as some on social media recently saw, it’s pretty easy to pick apart court coverage. Whether it’s from some personal perspective or simple misunderstanding of how courts are covered.
Crime stories almost always contain information that will trigger some kind of emotional reaction from people. Some perhaps should avoid reading certain articles if they beleive it could cause them distress.
The poster didn’t name the reporter or media outlet, but I’ll assume for purposes of this blog that it was directed at me.
I work very hard — I should say, volunteer my time very hard — for Cabin Radio providing coverage on a beat that is very tricky to cover, in both the skills required and the time it takes to sit through proceedings.
Now I’m not doing it to promote any kind of agenda. That’s ridiculous. In fact, my work has received positive responses from Crowns, defence lawyers and readers. They wouldn’t give me the time of day if I was doing something wrong.
The content of my coverage is pretty much the same as other local media. In fact, you can judge for yourself in those two stories from the same sentencing hearing. In fact, the content of the CKLB story is far more “Hollywood” than found in my piece.
All local media sit in the same gallery and report the same facts. What did happen in the past few weeks is there was a series of sentencings for different sexual assaults that didn’t have information on how the crime impacted the woman.
In fact, as I write this, I’m covering a very difficult trial where a young teenaged sexual assault victim is being accused of, and has admitted to, being untruthful about parts of her story.
If information from the victim is available, of course I report it. And place it prominently in my coverage. I want to be able to tell both sides of any story. With sexual assault cases, it’s even more crucial to explain how devastating it can be for the victim. I learned to search for those details early on in my reporting career. But sometimes they just aren’t available.
I haven’t even discussed how listening to all the sick tales of violence and depravity impact a courts/crime reporter over time. You need to be able to set aside your feelings and dig deep to produce a factual, readable and fair story.
I’ve seen some horrible crime scenes and been witnesses to scenes of carnage on our roadways while attending to vehicle crashes. That in addition to what I’ve listened to in my years of covering courts.
And I can attest that one can only keep all that bottled up for so long. I know that. I also know I have a particular skill that I’m not ready to set aside just yet.
So I’ll keep providing coverage of the local courts as long as Cabin Radio wants my copy.
It’s important for these stories to be told.