Nov 13, 2010

A View from Here: In heart-wrenching Smart trial, Tribune gives public the words the jury hears | The Salt Lake Tribune

Excerpted from the Tribune, a good piece on the Elizabeth Smart case.

We knew this already. Yet the depth of her strength continues to amaze us.

Last week Elizabeth Smart took the stand to testify, finally, against Brian David Mitchell. It became one of those rare stories, its importance to the community transcending all others.

As Smart recounted her horrific experience, The Tribune brought readers extensive coverage both online and in print. News editors Scott Sherman and Elizabeth Neff are leading our team of journalists covering the trial, which enters its second week on Monday.

Each medium presents a different challenge for the team.

In print, we work to provide readers a succinct report of what took place the day before, as well as a layer of analysis of what happened, and how it will affect the trial overall.

For example, when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted the trial just minutes after it opened to consider whether the jury was properly seated, The Tribune — relying on our reporters’ experience and the expertise of our sources — reported the next day that the delay was likely short-lived. The trial resumed on Monday.

Online, our goals are to provide nearly instantaneous reporting as well as a level of depth that could never fit within the confines of a newspaper. Online we are publishing word-for-word transcripts of the testimony.

“Knowing that there would be such intense interest that people would hang on every word, we came up with the idea of giving our readers every word,” Sherman said. “We want to give the public access to the court.”

Veteran courts reporter Steve Hunt is taking the lead on our coverage in print. Reporters Sheena McFarland, Aaron Falk, Pam Manson and Cimaron Neugebauer have been teaming to provide our coverage online. Because journalists are not allowed to transmit from the courthouse, team members have been alternately typing segments of testimony, then exiting the courthouse before sending it back to our newsroom from the street. Sherman and Neff review it before it is published.

Such is the community’s interest in this case, our first-day coverage on received more than 1.2 million page views — a record that surpassed our coverage of the Trolley Square tragedy in 2007.

Sherman explains.

“This is one of those cases where everybody wants to be on the jury. And it’s one thing to read a reporter’s account of what happened, and make a judgment, it’s another for them to read the transcript and to find out what the jury heard to help them decide how they would respond if they were in their shoes.

“The jury is the public and we’re giving the public what the jury hears. I think this is one of those rare cases where the public wants that level of detail.”

So, if you’ve read our coverage online, does it make sense to still read the traditional report that follows? Absolutely, says Neff, who believes our print coverage has distinguished itself.

“[Hunt’s coverage] provides a good analysis of how the Smarts’ testimony fits into the prosecutors’ larger trial strategy,” she said.

As the trial continues, that is particularly important. Our story today, for example, examines how the burden of proof for the insanity defense, as it is being used in this trial, lies with the defense, not with the prosecution. In a sense, therefore, the usual roles of prosecution and defense are reversed, with much of the prosecution’s most compelling argument expected to come when it rebuts the defense.

As the editors who oversee our coverage of many heart-wrenching trials and other stories involving the justice system, Neff and Sherman often are on the front lines of fulfilling our obligation as your connection to these proceedings.

“This isn’t easy for us to do. To listen to it, to document it, to read it. It’s not an easy job,” Sherman said.

“We feel strongly we have to show people what’s going on. … [This case] feels like it’s so important we have to be as big a watchdog as possible. ... Whatever the outcome of this case, [the public will be able to] say with certainty whether they agree or disagree based on what the jury heard.”

In coming days, experts will testify. The jury will weigh legal arguments. What will not change is the character that was revealed by Elizabeth Smart’s testimony.

“What amazes me is how strong Elizabeth Smart was as a 14-year-old girl,” Neff said.

“She saved her own life. She did, she really did.”

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