Monday, May 16, 2005

Day of the Balcony Jackals

It’s an assignment I’ve successfully dodged for a couple of weeks, but today it was once again my turn to baby-sit the April Greer murder trial. I’ve covered the ugly facts before: Ten weeks after the eight month pregnant woman disappeared, a farmer found her dismembered body stuffed in a trashcan in an Alamance County creek. Almost immediately, police arrested Greer’s boyfriend, Jerry Stuart, and charged him with the murder. That was two years ago. Today, Stuart sat motionless in a Graham courtroom as his lawyer launched into closing arguments. One flight up I huddled with other journalists in a crowded balcony, staring at an empty laptop screen and only half listening to the Defense Attorney through my ever-present headphones. All in all, a typical Monday.

McCall Pera was there. The UPN 48 anchor and occasional blogger joined me in the daylong session of scribble, bitch and listen. As the morning dragged out, we chatted about the Greensboro Blogosphere, the merits of the Prosecution’s case and the state of television in the Piedmont. Below us, a photographer from yet another station leaned away from his eyepiece and tried to tweak his audio mixer without attracting too much of the judge’s attention. As he did, the voice in our ears increased in volume, ceasing all the balcony chatter if only for a minute or two. But soon we were back to the idle chatter. It was hard not to, when the Defense Attorney droned on like a fast food drive-thru employee reading back an order.

Things picked up a bit after lunch, as the Prosecution took the floor for rebuttal and unleashed the kind of fire and brimstone regularly seen on old Matlock episodes. But by then the balcony was teeming with conversations and commentary as a steady stream of news folk filtered in for what threatened to be an eventful afternoon. With the judge about to charge the jury, it would be anyone’s guess how long the twelve men and women would spend deciding the case. Some in the balcony said it was a slam dunk, and predicted the dozen deliberators would return with a verdict in half an hour. But the sagest amongst us laughed at that assertion, reminding us all how foolish it is to second-guess a jury.

In truth, few of us in the Fourth Estate wanted the trial to end today - as a late afternoon decision would spark a frenzied foot race to the Courthouse steps below, where attorneys from both sides and probably a few family members would finally face the cameras. It may be exciting to watch on the evening news, but these kind of rushed lens-clusters could be hard on the back and eyeball -especially when there’s only a few scant minutes between interview and five o clock live shot. I’d much rather leisurely cull a few interesting moments from the stack of tapes I’d already recorded, than dash out a cogent report in ten minutes. But we who shovel pixels for a living are rarely in charge. When the judge finally did dismiss the jurors, all we could do upstairs was place bets on the length of their seclusion. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear Don Henley singing a familiar song...

Reading these four paragraphs, it all sounds rather crass. As grief stricken family members from both sides shielded their eyes from the grisly crime scene photographs on display, my cohorts and I played quiet grab-ass and complained about the case’s pace. But I make few apologies about our lack of reverence. Cover enough tragedy and tripe and the crusty outer shell thickens up quite a bit. Everyone gathered over the table of monitors was a veteran of countless trials. While we still counted ourselves as human, we didn’t show up at this out of the way Courthouse to empathize with either side of this senseless crime. Rather, we there to record, to report, to disseminate. The horrid details emanating from below were simply the currency of the day, the unfortunate by-product of a most curious profession. I ain’t sayin’ it’s right, but I’m betting its been that way since journalism consisted of cave wall sketchings and a series of emphatic grunts.

In the end, the jury didn’t render a verdict. Instead the judge sent them home for the night shortly after five, sparking silent whoops and a few high fives from we jackals in the balcony. Before the courtroom gallery could empty, most of us were already outside, tossing gear into open hatchbacks while punching our station’s digits into company cell phones. But, alas, it’s only a temporary reprieve - as deliberations resume tomorrow morning at nine-thirty sharp. I may very well be in attendance - camera on shoulder, microphone unsheathed, thumb poised over the 'Record' trigger. Then again, I stand an equal chance of spending my next shift surrounded by hyped-up second graders on an end-of-year field trip. I'm not sure which one I'd prefer less...


Samantha said...

I cant help but find this all interesting and exciting.... way better than sitting behind a desk all day.

Colonel Corn's Camera said...

"Currency of the day," great line Stew. "Crass," a word used often by my wife to describe me and the words that come out of my mouth.

Good post on real court room drama.

The Colonel

Fecund Stench said...

I worry about you. I would be traumatized forever if I saw the crime photos of the victim. BTW, the Wife has me practicing spending long periods in a closed barrel. I wonder what's up.