Thursday, January 31, 2008


Today is the fourth day in the murder trial for a local woman accused of drowning her 2-year-old niece last May. As the paper's courts & cops guy, I'm providing continuing coverage of the proceedings, which are scheduled to go on for two weeks.

Naturally, it's been horrific from the word go. The little girl, who was wearing a "Dora The Explorer" outfit the day she drowned, suffered a ghastly series of injuries -- her lungs were full of fluid (indicative of a "wet drowning," someone who's been trapped underwater), she had serious bruises to her face and neck, and evidence of sexual abuse was also found on her body.

So there's no way this was going to be the kind of event where someone can sort of blithely go about his business while attending. But on the other hand, I can't say I'm much more comfortable with the morbid fascination involved in covering the case. There are two elements to this: my own interest in the case, which has been piqued by hearing details at the rate of a few per day, and the interest of the paper's readership, which I am representing by continuing my coverage of the trial.

It's not like I'm alone in the public seats in the county court room. There are press people from local TV channels and other newspapers, and while I have yet to see the local radio news DJ, I hear he's at least been cribbing details from the newspapers to include in his daily local news broadcasts.

The whole proceeding reminds me of what scientists call "The Observer Effect." The idea is that the very act of observing any phenomena changes that which is being observed.

In this case, you have a woman accused of multiple counts of second-degree murder and sex abuse. By writing about the trial and connecting her name to the charges and developing details of the case, it seems like I'm condemning her before the jury has rendered their eventual decision.

But other than including material from her defense counsel's cross-examinations (and, eventually, the witnesses he calls to the stand), how else am I supposed to write about it? It's a public proceeding, sure... but does constant, every day coverage of the event deny the defendant the right to a fair trial in the vaunted "court of public opinion"?

It's an academic question -- I've already put on my tie (double-Windsor, thank you... none of that clubhouse slipknot nonsense) and in a few minutes I'll be heading off in the Reichswagen and driving down to Ithaca to hear the third day of prosecution testimony.