The frustration of that Wisconsin judge with the news media sparked memories of a multiple murder west of Craig, Colorado, in 1988, after which I found myself on the witness stand.
Wisconsin District Judge Bruce Schroeder lambasted the media last week over news coverage of the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial, which ended last Friday in Rittenhouse’s acquittal on all charges. That case saw extensive pretrial publicity, sweeping claims (without evidence) that Rittenhouse was a white supremacist and a vigilante, and even an attempt by MSNBC to shadow a bus carrying jurors, apparently in hopes of identifying them.
Gone are the days when the news media at least tried to avoid convicting the accused before a judge or jury had a chance to reach a verdict. Even Joe Biden expressed the opinion, long before the trial, that Rittenhouse was a white supremacist.
And gone, apparently, are the harried, ill-tempered editors of the past, keeping reporters in line. Too bad.
In early 1988, a man from Denver drove to Craig, Colorado – where I was working at the time as publisher of the local paper – and murdered his wife and child out on the prairie west of town. The bodies were discovered and evidence collected mere hours before a massive snowstorm swept through the area.
It was big news all over Colorado, and efforts were made at our local courthouse to avoid news coverage of the suspect arriving back in town, and to avoid a “media circus” at his initial appearances in court. (The “media circus” quote came from the same justice of the peace who conducted our marriage ceremony three years earlier. That’s life in a small town.)
A motion was made to bar news coverage of the suspect’s initial appearances in court. We obviously opposed that, and the Denver Post agreed. In fact the Post, concerned that the small town folks in Craig couldn’t handle fighting such an important matter, planned to send a lawyer to Craig to fight the motion.
So we had our own attorney, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at a hearing to oppose the motion. But the lawyer for the Post never showed up.
I was being transferred at the time from the Craig paper to a paper in Illinois, and on the day of the hearing I was showing the guy taking my place around town.
“Let’s drop in at the courthouse and see how the hearing is going,” I said.
No sooner had we sat down in the courtroom than the prosecuting attorney called “Dave Simpson, publisher of the Northwest Colorado Daily Press” to the stand. Before I knew it, I was sworn in and sitting in the witness stand.
“Isn’t it true that you will print anything you find out about this case in the newspaper?” the prosecuting attorney asked.
“That’s not true,” I replied, citing a recent case in which we did not print initial statements made by the wife of a defendant charged with murder, “because we figured it wouldn’t be admissible in the trial.”
The judge and attorneys retired to the judge’s chambers, but the smile on the face of our attorney told me we were about to prevail, and the initial hearings would not be closed. Afterwards, he said he couldn’t tell me what happened in the judge’s chambers, “but let’s just say you drove a stake through the heart of their argument.”
We prevailed, even though the big city lawyer from the Denver Post never made an appearance.
Things have changed, I fear, when even a man running for president – a lawyer no less – felt free to pass judgment on Kyle Rittenhouse long before the case went to trial. And with the decimation of small town papers, I shudder to think how many cases are covered by youngsters with no idea of how trials are conducted. Or not covered at all.
I read a Facebook post the other day from a retired trial judge who said his confidence in juries was vindicated by the Rittenhouse verdict.
However, “Seeing, hearing, reading the nonsense being spewed out of the once-vaunted American media remains disheartening. God help the USA… just sayin’.”
I replied, “I couldn’t agree more.”