Trial by proximity

How close is too close for a jury and a reporter?

The jury disappeared. The TV newsman needed time to broadcast the verdict live. Was he wrong to play detective?

By L. P. Phillips

L. P. Phillips is a general assignment reporter for WMBD-TV in Peoria, IL.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 8 (September 1991), p. 4.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

“This was the act of a jerk and a sleazy jerk at that,” bellowed one columnist. “I still can’t think of an acceptable journalistic reason to be wandering around that hotel,” grumbled another.

The “sleazy jerk” is me, the area I was “wandering around” was a motel where a murder trial jury was deliberating, and the public knuckle-rapping was over the ethics of my being there.

But I think the moral high-grounders were full of hot air and their frets over a possible mistrial, had I glimpsed a juror (or vice versa), are folly.

I was at the motel covering a breaking story and I see no ethical problem with that. But I do think my colleagues have a little ethical soul-searching to do themselves when it comes to checking facts before spouting off.

The story that took me to the motel and, later, to the hot seat was the retrial of Bloomington businessman David Hendricks. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the axe murders of his wife and three children, the defendant handled his own appeal and won a new trial.

It was such a sensational story that we planned to break into regular programming when the verdict came in.

Jury deliberations were upstairs in the courthouse, with the media confined to the lobby. The sheriff had promised to keep us apprised of all developments, but we found out he wasn’t doing so.

Then, after several hours of waiting, we learned through sources that the jury had not only had its dinner break, it had actually been moved to an undisclosed location because of air conditioning problems in the jury room.

Now we really started to worry. We already had technical trouble with our live transmission and we had to wonder if the sheriff would give us enough time to tune in our signal when the verdict was returned.

Should we try to find the jury or rely on the sheriff? Since we felt he’d already misled us, we had to look for the jury. Surely there was nothing objectionable in waiting for them in a different place.

I raced to check out a tip that they were at one of four motels. My plan was simply to stake out the parking lot, where we had as much right to be as the next guy.

I found a school bus behind one of the motels. The jury’s bus? A high school band’s? I had to go inside to be sure. But the motel clerk knew nothing about a jury, although he thought there was “a cop on the third floor.”

That’s where a fellow reporter and I split on ethics. She said she’d have been reasonably confident this was the right motel and stayed in the parking lot. I would have too — if the clerk had been certain. He wasn’t and neither was I so I went upstairs. Without a camera.

I expected to see a deputy guarding the jury, or at least a sign warning motel patrons to stay away, and I’d immediately retreat to the parking lot.

Instead, I found only an unmarked room guarded by a sleeping bailiff, with an oblivious deputy at the far end of the hall.

I decided to tell the deputy about the bailiff before heading out. Somewhat startled, he asked me to leave and I did so.

The next morning, the sheriff went on a tirade, ranting about how his deputy had “caught” me at the motel and threatening to arrest anyone found near the jury.

This was the first “news” since deliberations started, so within minutes the sheriff’s one-sided story was on the wires. Calls came into our newsroom from all over the state. And for a few hours, I became the story.

Later that afternoon, Hendricks was acquitted and I thought the motel incident would become a forgotten sidebar. Instead, it became open season on yours truly in the local media.

I have since debated this with my colleagues. One asked if I was crazy for risking a mistrial. Others said it was embarrassing, it was jury tampering.

It was not worth a little time to tune in a live shot.

Blather. I have the greatest respect for the legal system and I do think there is a line that can be wrongly crossed. But as long as jurors are afforded the privacy the law entitles them to, I see no problem.

And I still don’t perceive any ethical misstep. I wasn’t looking for jurors in die flesh, only their whereabouts. I had no intention of speaking to them and I don’t buy the argument that simply being in the same motel could have been grounds for a mistrial. That’s a sheriff talking, not a lawyer.

I put my viewers before a sheriff and I put the legal system before my viewers. As long as I’m not breaking the law, I don’t see anything wrong with walking in an area that anyone else in that motel could have walked in.

But to put a second ethical edge on this sword, let’s go back to those who wrote that of which they knew not.

Neither the columnists nor the radio talk show host bothered to get my side before preaching ethics. They just took the sheriff’s word at face value.

Talk about the ethical pot calling the ethical kettle black!

If there are questions about intentions, it’s only proper to ask the source, not just to wonder aloud. If there is editorializing to be done, it must be based on a foundation of accuracy, not assumption. And if there is ethical finger-wagging to be conducted, it should be directed at those who misrepresented their opinions as facts.

Does this mean I see no problems with my actions?

Just one. I shouldn’t have blabbed to the deputy about the snoozing bailiff. I should have run a story on it.