Clippings by John Flowers: How the Independent covers crime
Police and court reports can have a jarring effect when they hit the pages of your local newspaper.
• Adult charged with sexually assaulting a child.
• Estranged husband and wife charged with providing false information about each other to investigators in an attempt to get the upper hand in a child custody battle.
• Man charged with sexually accosting two women, each with developmental disabilities.
Some of our readers wonder how these and other cases end up getting reported in the paper. This column is intended to answer that question, along with others our readers might have about why the Independent covers cases adjudicated in Addison County Superior Court, criminal division.
We often find out about these cases at the earliest stage of the judicial process — when the alleged offender is cited by police for a single or multiple infractions. The investigating law enforcement officer will write up a report and refer the case to the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office. That office, led by State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans, will make the call on whether to prosecute that case. In essence, prosecutors weigh the evidence and severity of the allegations.
If the state’s attorney elects to prosecute, his or her office gathers additional facts about the case, the victim and the defendant. The defendant is eventually arraigned at the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury to answer to the charges.
If the defendant pleads guilty on arraignment day (very unlikely), the judge begins weighing punishment options. But in an overwhelming majority of cases, the defendant pleads innocent. This gives the accused and his/her lawyer more time to build a defense and/or begin talks about a possible plea bargain with the state’s attorney’s office.
If those talks with prosecutors fail to yield a deal — which could lead to a lesser charge and sentence in exchange for a guilty plea — the defendant is entitled to a trial by jury that could exonerate the accused. Or result in the maximum penalty prescribed by law for the offense. Or something in between.
Arraignment is a key event as far as the media is concerned. That’s when detailed information about the alleged crime becomes public. The most salient document for reporters is the investigative affidavit in the defendant’s file. This is the foundation of the prosecution’s case.
We at the Independent believe our readers should know about criminal activity in and around where they live — not to satisfy prurient curiosity, but mainly for their own safety and to explain potential crime trends. While old-time journalists remember that old tabloid saying, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,” the Independent generally doesn’t plaster its front page with “sensational” crime stories. The paper did go Page One with the double-murder/suicide at the former Pine Meadows development in Middlebury around 25 years ago, a case that paralyzed the community for several hours when police weren’t sure if the perpetrator had fled the scene.
Here’s our general rule of thumb when it comes to reporting court cases: We confine coverage to felony cases, the more serious classification of crimes. We don’t generally cover misdemeanor court cases, unless a defendant has been charged with multiple offenses (example: a burglary spree).
Our reporting on felony cases is almost exclusively confined to information police investigators have presented in their court affidavits. Most defense lawyers as a rule won’t comment on a case while it’s being prosecuted. State prosecutors will answer clarifying questions. Defendants are always advised by their attorneys to not speak publicly about their case.
One of the most frequent questions we receive at the Independent: “What happens if the defendant is exonerated or is convicted of a lesser charge than the one originally brought by the state’s attorney?”
We used to publish a court log that included resolution of the various cases decided in Addison Superior Court. Unfortunately, court administrators several years ago decided that with a tightening judiciary budget, they could no longer assign their staff to pulling the records we were using for our court log as a public service. Officials did offer to resume the service for the customary court fee of 25 cents per page. Since the court log documents most weeks amounted to more that 100 pages, the print media — also faced with budget concerns — decided it couldn’t be a regular part of our budget in either time or expense.
The court has made a public computer terminal available to do case research, but navigating to the right documents — particularly for someone from outside the court system — took hours. Really — hours. The system is ancient, with the basis of the software dating back to the 1980s.
So while there’s still no court log, the Independent has forged a relationship with the state’s attorney’s office to allow us to give closure to the felony cases we’ve been writing about. As frequently as need to keep current, we’ll present the office with a list of the cases we’ve covered, and the state’s attorney’s officials — through their records system — will be able to quickly tell us how the cases were adjudicated. We’ll write it up in a column run in our A-section.
Hope this sheds some light on our crime coverage. Please feel free to weigh in.
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