January 11th, 2006 - Day 3: Making The News Versus Reporting The News

No reporter worth a damn ever likes to become part of the story.

Understand, when it comes to TV journalists, we may seem to be part of what we're telling you every night, standing out on some dark street somewhere or broadcasting from the edge of a frenzied crowd. But there's a difference: we're in the middle of it most of the time, but we're not the focus of what's happening.

Print reporters, of course, have an easier time of it. It's a rare day when the public can put a face behind a byline in a newspaper story.

But avoiding becoming the story is one of the basic lessons one learns (or should learn) when coming up in the craft.

Of course, sometimes it can't be helped.

Take for instance when WAVE 3 Investigator Eric Flack got sucker punched last year by that chump running an alleged pyramid scheme. Flack had gone to his office for some answers (after the pipsqueek ducked numerous phone calls) only to get smacked, slammed against a wall and choked by this character and his boys on a prearranged schedule -- all captured on videotape.

Through no fault -- or intent -- of his own, Flack became the story, a reporter doing his job jumped by a couple of punks in buttoned down shirts. The video went nationwide, being broadcast something like 250 times before it was all done.

I became part of the David Camm murder trial story here in Warrick County on Wednesday and while I don't like it, it was just one of those things that couldn't be helped.

On Tuesday, defense lawyer Katherine Liell asked Warrick Superior Court Judge Robert Aylsworth for a court order sending some socks to a DNA lab for testing. She was incensed, claiming that the Indiana State Police had never checked to see if DNA could be recovered from the socks, which were found in trash near where Kim, Jill and Bradley Camm were found shot to death five years ago.

How do I know all this? I was there, sitting in the courtroom when it happened.

Floyd County chief deputy prosecutor Steve Owen harrumphed awhile over it, but the judge quickly agreed to the testing and we moved on. But not before Owen asked the judge to hear any future motions of this type in private, away from the courtroom, out back, in the judge's office.

Later, I heard through the grapevine that Aylsworth agreed, instructing the lawyers to bring any future such motions over evidence or potential evidence to him in his office and not in open court.

Judge Aylsworth, whom I actually like and respect on a professional level, basically confirmed that fact when I asked him about it Wednesday morning before court started.

"These hearings are not necessarily part of the public record; they are routinely done this way, in fact, we often do it over the phone," he told me.

With all due respect, Your Honor, I mean, come on: this case is already snake bitten enough. "Routine" is about the last word one might use to describe State of Indiana versus David Ray Camm.

Not only that, the judge said he would decide on a case by case basis whether to announce how he ruled on the particular motions from the bench.

You see the problem with all this? There's no way I can inquire about how something went down in this case when I'm not aware that it's happened because it was done in private.

The lawyers are under a gag order, so they can't tell me. The paper case record is being kept inside the judge's office (as they always are during trials), so how can I ask to see something in that stack of stuff, like a motion, like a ruling, when I haven't a clue about when it happened BECAUSE the judge heard the arguments in chambers, where the sun don't shine?

Forgive a sentimental moment. One thing that makes this nation truely great is that we don't hold secret trials. All right, all right, I guess the Bush administration has some of that when it comes to national security and the war on terror, but I'm not going there in this column.

Ordinarily, as a matter of course, every-day felony trials are held in the complete sunshine of openness, which really is what makes our judicial system and freedoms pretty terrific.

But the judge had spoken; he's got a jury to shepherd, a trial to contact and about a zillion other things to worry about besides my concerns in getting information about this case out to the public.

Besides, I had no ammo just then other than my gut feeling and a layman's understanding of Indiana law, which says no proceedings in a criminal trial can be held in private without a hearing.

But I know this can't stand. I call the office, who calls our lawyer, who gets hooked up with me and I run it for her. She's got a problem with what the judge is doing, but says 'call me later.'

I interview Owen and Liell, who both basically say they're only following orders. Can't blame them; the judge in any courtroom in the land is The King.

To be fair, they're already having problems with potential jurors who know something about this case, which kind of screws the pooch in bringing this venue up the road a hundred miles from where the crime occurred in Georgetown.

So far, so good. I'm not part of the story.

But then, our legal eagle tells me to approach the judge with a message, which I do, until the judge says hold on cowboy, we need to have both lawyers involved.

He schedules a hearing for after lunch. Now I'm screwed, now I'm part of the story.

Shortly before more potential jurors are brought in for the afternoon session, the judge invites me to express the concerns of WAVE 3 News. I do so, in open court, citing the specific law our lawyer told me to use, with all present.

But a cool thing happened. The judge changed his mind, just like that, and agreed not to hold any hearings in private until and unless he gave everyone notice of his intent to do so first. That, of course, would let any interested party request the hearing prescribed by Indiana law.

It all worked out; they'll be no secret proceedings in State of Indiana versus David Camm.

Sometimes, you just can't help it; sometimes you just have to become part of the story. In this case, I'm glad I did.