Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Slap on the wrist? Not exactly.

Many times when news of an alleged crime is reported, readers get upset that the defendant was let off with a “slap on the wrist.” I think part of the confusion stems from people thinking the case has been settled, when all that's happened is a defendant was arraigned and they were released from the court while the case is pending. It's fine to be upset over a defendant's release conditions, but this post is to shed a little more light on the process.

When a person is charged with a crime, even if they confessed it to police, they are presumed innocent until they're convicted. That said, the court can and does place restrictions on people's freedom pending the outcome of their case. These restrictions are called “conditions of release.”

Typically, when I hear about them it's when they are being argued by attorneys before a judge at the defendant's arraignment hearing. The rules about what conditions can be set are fairly nuanced and I'm not going try and get into every little detail, but generally speaking the judge has to use the least restrictive conditions possible to ensure the public's safety and that the defendant does not flee the court's jurisdiction and comes to court on time.

A defendant who violated their conditions can be charged with a misdemeanor crime called “violating conditions of release,” which brings them back into court where the judge can impose stricter conditions.

Conditions of release can be anything from having to check in at a police station a few times a week, or everyday, not driving, drinking alcohol, leaving the county, or having contact with certain people, usually witnesses or alleged victims. Curfews are pretty common, and judges can also bar a person from using the Internet or a cell phone.

In some cases, a judge can order a person held without bail. This usually happens when a crime of violence has been alleged, or the potential maximum sentence is life in prison. Often a person facing such charges will be held until a “weight of the evidence” hearing can be conducted, where attorneys make more involved arguments.

In Vermont, bail can only be set to guard against a person fleeing the court jurisdiction. Judges look at everything from a defendant's appearance record, their ties to other states or countries, and the possible penalties they might face if convicted when setting bail amounts.

Conditions and bail can be modified as the case is pending. Sometimes they get stricter, sometimes they get relaxed.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Numbers don't lie, readers read bad news

Heroin is the talk of the town. We can tell because we've got the web traffic data to prove it. Crime has always accounted for the most-read articles on our website. Our page used to have a “most viewed” tab showing the top five articles readers were clicking on. Relatively minor crime items routinely outranked important local issues. We don't have the tab anymore, but from time to time we get these traffic reports which show the same thing.

Even on Facebook, stories on crime get massive amounts of attention in the form of comments.

This looks at the most-viewed articles published to the website between Feb. 23 and March 8. The percentages to the far right are out of the entire New England News Group.

Bennington Banner

Headline Views As % of all site views
Local woman charged with reckless endangerment

This was article about a woman who allegedly overdosed on heroin while here two young children were in the house alone with her. They called their father, who then called police.
4,196 1.1%

Friday traffic stop leads to arrest of major area heroin supplier

The headline sums it up nicely. Police notified us through a press release and we learned more in court a few days later.
3,288 0.9%

Readers react to story about Bennington's heroin problem in the New York Times

The New York Times (Kind of a big deal in the news world) wrote an article about Bennington and we wrote an article about local people's reaction.

2,548 0.7%
Police: Recent arrests are a step up, targeting major drug dealers

Heroin again!
2,450 0.7%

Coalition reveals extent of debt; officers say they're on track

This article was written in April of last year and was popping up on the “most viewed” list for months, even after the tab was removed from our main page and lived as a ghost on our archives page.

1,609 0.4%

UPDATE: Missing teens found

Two young women ran away from Bennington School and were later found safe.
1,162 0.3%

Man pleads not guilty to third DUI, charges related to car chase

People love car chases.
1,144 0.3%

Police search for missing teens

This was about those teens that were later found.
1,101 0.3%

Shaftsbury man accused of spanking children

With a belt, and possibly a spatula.
914 0.2%

Crash in Hoosick Falls injures three

Car crashes seem to come in clusters. Hopefully there won't be more anytime soon.
870 0.2%

Fun facts:
-My paycheck remains the same whether the news is bad or good, regardless of how many people read it.
-Many of the articles I would use in my portfolio are the ones few people read.
-Writing good news is often just as easy/hard as writing bad news.

Bad news tends to be what people talk about and so we hear about it more. Good news has a bad habit of reaching our ears half an hour before the good-news event is set to take place. The human mind also tends to view the world with a, “Don't fix what ain't broke,” mentality, so when everything is fine and dandy people are quiet but when it hits the fan, that's when people start to chatter.

Readers would look with utter befuddlement at the headline, “Nothing bad happened today. Everything is fine,” if they noticed it at all. A few would quip, “Sounds like an Onion article,” a joke that never gets old and is always funny.

I'm reminded of the audit reports in Pownal before the recent accounting strife there. The auditing firm would take up the better part of a Select Board meeting telling the board the town's books are largely in order with a few things that could be done a little better. “Stop the presses!” I never said to my editor, ever.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Comments and courts

Few things draw out emotions like crime. Mix that with the Internet's ability to remove a person's inhibitions, tact, and sense of shame and you're left with what many media outlets call their “comment section.”

When we at the Banner post an article to our website, you can register for a Disqus account and fire away. We post links to these articles on our Facebook page where you can also leave your thoughts. We don't see much feedback from Twitter.

Some things that are true about the comments under courts and crime articles holds true for anything we post, but since this is a court blog we'll stick to court and cop comments.

First, a history lesson.

When I started working at the Banner the articles on our website would be automatically paired with a link to a “Topix” discussion board. Users posted anonymously and we did our best to keep things civil.

Topix is its own entity and you can still go there to comment on Banner articles, but the reason we switched, to my understanding, is because the Topix board became a howling pit of madness that served no purpose other than to be a nest of cyber bullies who constantly attacked citizens and public figures while hiding behind screen names. These folks enjoyed naming alleged sexual assault victims and insulting high school sports teams. A former colleague of mine described the board as a “car wreck,” and having seen more than a few vehicle crashes I have to agree, the old board resembled a pile of needless destruction that's hard to both look at and look away from.

Our new comment system still lets people post anonymously, thus shielding them from every social mechanism developed to keep people civil, but the added work of having to register with an email seems to make people more polite. Still, I don't find the discussions being had particularly valuable to anyone, aside from maybe the posters themselves who need a place to vent their anger and frustration with the world. We all need that from time to time but would it hurt to offer a constructive opinion now and again? Maybe ask an actual question and not one that's rhetorical? We'll reply if something is unclear or left unstated.

As for Facebook, discussions have been slightly better, but still we have people calling each other names and saying accused drug dealers should be killed via overdose. I'm not going to tell you how to feel, but you live in an age where your ability to spread your opinions far and wide is unparalleled with any other time in history, you should use that ability a little better than you are.

Of course we're somewhat to blame here. Media groups all over have been stumped by these comment sections. When you write us a letter to the editor, you have to put your name and hometown on the letter and provide us with a phone number so we can ensure you are who you say you are. We have no such standard for our website or Facebook page. In many ways, we treat them like gas stations treat their bathrooms. It's standard in the industry to have them, they're great in theory, and we struggle to keep them clean.

And finally, one thing that crops up from time to time is “freedom of speech.”

Here's the First Amendment, quoted from www.webcitation.org

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Notice how it says nothing about a newspaper being required to provide anyone with a medium for expressing their opinions. We can delete comments as we see fit and even ban users when they repeatedly cause problems. 

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

The cow says, "You can't handle the truth!"

It might be a Vermont thing, but cows get mentioned a lot during local court trials.

The reason for that is the “cows in a field” example that judges often read as part of their instructions to the jury. These instructions come at the end of a trial, after the attorneys have finished their closing arguments and have agreed on the contents of the instructions, which for the most part are the same from trial to trial but can differ depending on elements of the case. They endeavor to make clear to the jury that they are only to consider the evidence presented to them and make a decision based on what the law actually says. The instructions gives some guidance on how to view the evidence, what is and isn't evidence, types of evidence, and so on.

Here's where cows come in.

“Cows in a field” is used to explain the difference between direct evidence and indirect evidence, or circumstantial evidence as it's often called. A photograph of cows in a field is direct evidence that cows were in the field. Pictures of cow tracks in the field is indirect, or circumstantial, evidence that cows were in the field. According to these jury instructions, both types of evidence carry the same weight.

This is just a guess, but cows are used as an example because most court cases don't involve them. They're neutral and if you live in rural New England you've probably seen them before. They're certainly less prejudicial than bruises on a person's face being circumstantial evidence they were punched, or some other awful thing. 

Indirect evidence that cows frequent this field. Also, guess how many photos of "cow tracks" also feature "cow pies."


 Direct evidence that cows are in this field.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Shhh! There's a drug sweep going on!

Early Wednesday morning I posted to the Bennington Banner's Facebook page, “Operation County Strike 2 is underway.”

I did this from the back of a police cruiser as the two cops I was with were driving around looking for a suspect. Later I wrote an article giving a full account of my day, but a few minutes after making the Facebook post I noticed someone posted the comment, “Now why would you share this info?”

Following that, “Banner you guys must look at the walls in your office and say, " let's post about the drug sweap,(sic) yeah that's a good idea". Do you ever stop and think?” And following that, from the same person, “And at what point was this post a good idea to display for the drug dealers?”

People have to be forgiven for not knowing how drug sweeps work. I for one knew nothing about them until January when I saw the first Operation County Strike. The Banner kept people up-to-date via Facebook then, too, and over 40 people of the 63 police had on their list were arrested that day. The remainders were picked up later or were already in jail. A handful had left the state beforehand.

Police arrested all 16 of the people they were expecting to arrest on Wednesday, despite the Banner's Facebook updates. In fact, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette told me a few people turned themselves in who weren't even on the list. The same thing happened in January.

When the cops were going down Pleasant Street asking people if they had seen so-and-so, I had the feeling a lot of text messages were being sent after the police moved on. I'd be willing to bet there had been a great deal of texting once the sweep started, before we posted anything. Give those in the drug trade some credit.

The misconception is that these sweeps are some sort of stealth operation. The fact that police let the media know they're doing them tells me that they're not being viewed that way, and the fact they're arresting the people they're targeting likewise tells me they don't need to be. It could be because the police know who these people are, roughly where to find them, and have gathered all the evidence they feel they need. For at least one suspect, they called the person on their cell phone and basically made an appointment for her to come and be arrested.

Of course, one thing I didn't do was Tweet or post to Facebook where we were, where we were headed, and who the police were after at that moment.

I noticed the same reaction to the DUI checkpoint coverage over the weekend. DUI checkpoints are even less sneaky than drug sweeps. The law requires police to inform the public when they'll be conducted, and the flashing blue lights mean they can be seen from space, so they're not hard to avoid if you're so inclined.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Remote coverage and why search warrants are news.

On Tuesday, I heard federal agents were at Joe Tornabene's Auto Sales & Service in Pownal. How the story played out for the next few days would remind me how nice it is to be within walking distance of the court I usually cover, and how important it is to mind the weather.

I drove down to Pownal to see what was going on, expecting to learn little given how federal agents are. I found them to be quite pleasant, actually. They told me they were from the U.S. Treasury and gave me the phone number for their public information officer (PIO) in Boston.

While I was out of the office, the PIO returned my call and gave the Banner a statement saying that Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents were at Tornabene's in the course of their official duties and they had authorization to do whatever they were doing there by a court.

Not a lot of information, but any time federal agents enter a private business and look through records, it's news. If you feel the IRS should be able to do that with no one watching, I disagree and I'm sorry for you.

Later, I spoke to the PIO directly and she told me which court authorized it. Whatever “it” was.

It was the United State's District Court District of Vermont.

That court has two offices, one in Rutland and the other in Burlington. You can access case files through a web service called Pacer, but only things that have been filed and are public show up.

After the Banner's last experience with search warrants, we came under the impression that a search warrant is public after it's been executed. So, I called the court office to see what I could get.

Nothing. Zip. Zilch. That could mean it doesn't exist, isn't showing up in the system, or for some reason unknown to me isn't public.

The people I spoke to were friendly and helpful, but anytime I've had to call a court or state's attorney's office outside of Bennington, I've felt like it's been more difficult. It's nice to be able to see the person you're asking information from. I feel like they'll go the extra mile for you if they're familiar with you.

Now, the trouble with court being so close to my office is I get a little too brave with the weather. Yesterday the forecast was for severe thunderstorms, and given the weatherman's track record in Bennington I looked at the sky, said “lol whatev,” then took a walk.

Bad move. While I was there the rain stopped fooling around. Our newest reporter, Khynna Kuprian, was kind enough to come give me a ride back, and while we were at court I showed her how to get information from the clerks in the event I'm off or on vacation. The public terminal uses a DOS-like operating system which can baffle the uninitiated.

The Vermont Supreme Court and the Vermont Environmental Court are the other courts the Banner has to follow remotely. They post their decisions online, and the attorneys in question are usually local, but again I feel like it would be better if I could walk in and talk to somebody. Then again, never having been there, maybe it's not so easy.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Changing beats?

With the newsroom losing two reporters in the last month or so, I'm firmly set in “wait and see” mode when it comes to covering courts. I've taken over the Bennington town beat, and until new people get hired I'm doing what I can to cover what I can.

I'm not complaining. For me, the challenging part of the job has always been finding things to write about, so having many beats to cover isn't so bad. What I'm waiting to see is whether or not I can cover both the town and the court and do both justice.

I was told that the town and court beats were once covered by the same person. It makes sense, as stories often overlap. Many times the former Bennington reporter, Neal Goswami, would be following a Bennington story until it went to court where I would pick it up. Most times it's best to have one reporter on a story, but it worked well enough.

The trouble with court is “court time.” One might think a place with a daily schedule of events would be predictable and easy to cover. Just drop in when something interesting is scheduled to happen, talk to who's scheduled to be there, and leave.


You have to respect the court clerks and sheriff's deputies who make the place run as well as it does. They're short-staffed, and they manage a lot of people who, because of the situations being dealt with, are low on patience. I've always found the court staff to be as helpful as they can be, but I'm not the highest thing on their list of priorities.

And that means getting the information I need from court often takes a lot of time. Even if I'm covering a hearing where I have the background information and don't need paperwork, that hearing scheduled for 2 p.m. might not happen until 3 p.m., or even 4 p.m. A few times I've waited a few hours for a court hearing only to have it canceled. Stories can fall through on any beat, but most times you know that fairly early and can adjust.

I enjoy covering courts and hope to continue to do it, but if I have to pick between beats, I may lean on the side of change.

Which means I'll have to come up with another blog...I started this court blog with the notion of explaining court things that I couldn't fit into articles. Years ago I tried to get a gardening blog going, but didn't get much support for it (I wonder why?). For me, the trick for reporters and blogging is keeping some sort of distance between you and what you cover. A court blog was fine, because there's a lot that goes into how courts are covered that doesn't have a lot to do directly with the articles themselves.

I cover fish and wildlife, too, but I haven't been hunting in years. There's blog fodder for you, maybe even a series. Who said it was hard finding stuff to write about?