Thursday, April 28, 2005

Of Murder Trials and Survivors

It was a gorgeous Spring morning - what better time for a grisly murder trial? The April Greer trial certainly qualifies. Ten weeks after the eight month pregnant woman disappeared two years ago, a farmer found her dismembered body floating in an Alamance County creek. Police arrested her boyfriend, Jerry Stuart and charged him with the heinous act. All in all, it’s a pretty horrid affair. If Jerry Stuart didn’t kill his girlfriend, then the person who did still walks free. If he did do it, well, I personally volunteer to pull the switch and send this cretin to the Great Beyond.

But my business cards don’t read ‘Executioner‘. Instead the tattered rectangles at the bottom of my desk drawer bear the title ’Photojournalist’ - a sticky label indeed, but one I begrudgingly committed to more than fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve covered my fair share trials, from accused child molesters to corrupt televangelists to addled hostage takers. As a chronic purveyor of feel-good fluffy features, it ain’t my favorite gig. But a man’s got to pay his bills, and in my world that means doing what the bosses say - even if it means spending the day listening to the kinds of horrific details they don’t even talk about on CSI.

When I arrived at the Graham courthouse around mid-morning, my partner for the day was already ensconced in the corner of the balcony reserved for the media. Jeff Varner is best known as a contestant on the second season of ‘Survivor’, but since joining our news team, he’s tackling challenges of a different sort - a daily gauntlet of seemingly-impossible deadlines. When I checked in, he barely looked up from his scribble-filled notepad. As in most trials, the judge only allowed one camera in court - forcing the rest of the media pack to gather around hastily-arranged monitors and records the proceedings from the most uncomfortable far corner the bailiffs could come up with. Logistically, this arrangement can be a nightmare. If I said I wasn’t a little concerned about my new colleague’s ability to handle this grim blend of reality television, I’d be lying - and that’s something I try really hard not to do on this blog.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. Throughout a very long day, Jeff proved himself more than capable, from digesting a glut of acidic testimony to writing under the tightest of deadlines to scoring an exclusive with The Accused’s chain-smoking mother. When the judge dismissed everyone for lunch, we sped off to a key location in the case and shot Jeff’s on-camera stand-up. After that, we grabbed a couple of bags of fast food and headed back to the courthouse, whereupon Jeff disappeared into the hall of justice as I began setting up a stripped-down TV station on the sidewalk outside.

When he emerged from the courthouse an hour later, crunch time was on. Sequestering ourselves inside the live truck, we took part in the age old newsgathering tradition of writing, editing and the occasional expressed profanity. Ninety minutes later, a director named Carl punched a button back in the control room and Jeff’s face popped up in living rooms across the Piedmont. As I tweaked the focus ever so slightly, I nodded in agreement as this veteran of a half dozen Tribal Councils related the sad facts of a sensational murder trial with the appropriate gravitas. When the first of two remotes was over, Jeff leaned on the live truck and caught his breath for the first time all week.

“Man”, he said, flashing his trademark grin, “I thought laying around bored in the Outback was tough…this is hard!”

Welcome to my world, Jeff. Welcome to my world.

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