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Ordered to leave a murder trial, WCCO’s Murphy fights back

Despite being among the first people in a Hennepin County courtroom, two of the journalists, WCCO-TV’s Esme Murphy and Northwest Community Television’s Mike Johnson, were told to leave.

A courtroom with 33 seats. Waiting outside, five journalists, 32 members of a murder victim’s family, and five people connected to the defendants.

Who should get in?

Despite being among the first people in the Hennepin County courtroom, two of the journalists, WCCO-TV’s Esme Murphy and Northwest Community Television’s Mike Johnson, were told to leave by the prosecutors’ victim’s advocate.  The journalists say the action — backed up by Judge Janet Poston — was unprecedented in their experience.

Esme Murphy
Esme Murphy

A furious Murphy — who later blogged about the dispute — risked a contempt citation by “inappropriately” complaining to the judge in open court, a court spokeswoman asserts. (As much fun as it is to imagine an “And Justice For All” moment, witnesses say Murphy’s request was diplomatic, if not exactly welcome.)

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That the case attracted media attention should not have been a surprise: it is a nightmare. Jamis Marks was killed early New Year’s Day 2008 after two men allegedly invaded his Robbinsdale home and threatened to rape his wife Heather.

The media was not barred from the opening day arguments; reporters for Channel 5, Channel 9 and the Star Tribune stayed. However, Murphy argues that the public is best represented by more media voices.

“The public has an interest and believe me, the issues here are really exceptional,” she says. “There are questions about the key witnesses, for example. This case deserves all the scrutiny it can get.”

Interestingly, while Murphy contends the prosecutors’ representatives were the ones enforcing her exclusion, defense attorney Michael Colich argued in court for accommodating her and Johnson.

A temporary fix
By the trial’s second day, the situation had been remedied. The proceedings were moved to a bigger courtroom, and Murphy and her colleagues were all able to witness the goings-on. But journalists say the blowup, while exceptional, is not isolated.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” says the Star Tribune’s Rochelle Olson, who covered the first-day proceedings. “Some judges set aside seats for media, some don’t. In this case, [Judge Janet] Poston had set aside three sets. Well, this was a BIG case. BIG deal. Judge could have put in extra chairs as some judges do. But Poston just kicked them out. I do think in general, judges need to do a better job accommodating the media. The media is there as a proxy for the public, not just for kicks.”

Another reporter, who was not authorized by employers to talk, says there was a similar tussle during University of Minnesota football star Dominic Jones’ rape trial. “They moved it only after we raised a stink,” says the reporter, noting the media had to go over the trial judge’s head to the chief judge.

Why not accommodate?
Olson questions why Poston could not simply have brought in two folding chairs for Murphy and Johnson. Court spokeswoman Nancy Peters says that wasn’t possible “because of a safety issue — someone might try to bolt, or lunge. There are high emotions in the courtroom. Deputies stand in the aisle, and you have to have proper aisle space.”

Other remedies were not available, Peters says. The court has no video hookup to show proceedings in an overflow room, and a bigger courtroom was not available because prosecutors hadn’t told officials about their overflow contingent in time.

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“Our courtrooms are not always huge and glamorous, like the federal courts,” Peters says. “We’re in the Government Center, and it’s 35 years old. There are only X numbers of large courtrooms. I’m not sure Esme is here often enough to know that.”

Murphy — who says she covers three to four trials in the building per year, plus a handful elsewhere — brushes off the ignorance charge.  On her blog, she said she was told she was excluded “because I had not made a ‘reservation’” — something she and other reporters say has never been a requirement.

Peters insists Murphy misunderstood. There’s no “reservation” system; rather, three media seats are always reserved: one for print, one for radio, one for TV. However, there’s good reason reporters are confused: Peters acknowledges the policy is unwritten.

Journalists versus victims?
In an era where fewer reporters cover everyday government work, the courts have an embarrassment of riches, at least for sensational trials. Given the pageview potential in the blogosphere, it’s not hard to envision the courts contending with even bigger journalist crowds down the line.

If it comes down to victims’ family (at least beyond a dozen or so family members) versus journalists, the media will probably lose. And of course, herd coverage of trials has not always produced more light, despite undeniable heat.

Still, one reporter reminded me that it’s the defendant’s trial — their Constitutional rights are at stake. Beyond the emotions, the public might regret having fewer watchdogs for the most questionable cases.

There is a time-honored way to accommodate a media overflow: pool coverage, where a few reporters share their work with many. Peters says she suggested to Murphy that reporters work out such an arrangement, and Murphy “rolled her eyes.”

Responds Murphy: “That’s because, in my experience, the people doing the excluding” — in other words, court officials — “need to establish the pool before the proceedings. They had only three seats allocated, but none of us had been notified.”

Of course, if the courts simply televised trials, we could all see what’s going on. Peters notes the Fourth Judicial Circuit (Hennepin County) is readying for a pilot program to test cameras’ influences on trials.

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Anyone who knows Murphy knows she is nothing if not aggressive, and she is unbowed. “Limiting press access is a serious matter, but I wouldn’t hesitate to risk contempt again,” she insists. “If I had not made a huge stink, nothing would’ve changed.”

In a subsequent blog post, Murphy said she and WCCO news director Scott Libin had “very productive” discussions with Chief Judge James Swenson.

That will produce a written policy, though perhaps more journalists will find themselves outside the courtroom looking in. “News media are forewarned,” Murphy concluded. “Pool situations may be the norm in days to come. Stay tuned.”