Durham county courthouse

As I was driving to work on I-40 yesterday, the lead story on NPR’s Morning Edition caused me to take the Durham media trucks.jpgFreeway exit instead of heading straight to Raleigh.  I wanted to see exactly what a media frenzy looks like up close and personal.  I stayed for nearly two hours and ended up being saddened and disgusted beyond words… but it had little to do with Duke, lacrosse, town-gown relationships or the circus I witnessed.

Surprisingly, I found a parking place very near the Durham County courthouse and made my way to the steps where tax-delinquent properties are sold and took a few pictures of the area around where many of the images of adamant lawyers from both sides of this national story have been beamed to the world in attempts to sway public opinion their way.IMG_0445.JPG

About fifteen minutes into my stay, a rustle of activity began as videographers started shouldering their cameras and reporters pulled out their stenopads.  They all started heading for the elevators inside the courthouse, so I did what any self respecting blogger would do… I followed them.

In the rush to get inside, the folks manning the metal detectors at the entrance to the courthouse could only listen to the constant beeping of their machines as they made no effort to check all of the electronic equipment passing through their station.  I passed right through, even though I was carrying a fancy razor knife that I clip on my belt every morning while getting dressed for work.  Any weapon would have been easy to introduce to that courthouse if someone had a mind bent on violence.

After waiting on the elevator for several minutes, I took the advice a CBS producer gave her camera crew when she suggested the stairs would be quicker.  I followed them to the fifth floor and was quite winded when we reached what I finally discovered was our destination: The courtroom where newly indicted Duke lacrosse player Collin Finnerty (ESPN profile) IMG_0454.JPGwas making his first court appearance.

Finnerty had obviously been lawyer-coached to a fault.  The 19 year-old boy sat motionless and without expression next to his attorney as the camera-eyes of the nation were trained on him from Still.jpgevery corner and seat of the small courtroom.  However, despite the crush of reporters and photogs populating the room, the place was eerily quiet because there was real drama in that courtroom having nothing to do with Finnerty. 

Court was in session and sitting at the defandants table before the judge was a real-life monster in an orange, county-issued jumpsuit with “Inmate” printed on the back.  A man, if you can call him such, was being tried for repeatedly raping his two daughters aged 10 and 14.  Sitting at the prosecutor’s table was the monster’s wife and the eldest of the two daughters.  Behind them, in the gallery, sat their supportive family and friends.

Even though the nation’s media came to ogle at a kid from New York, what they would have heard, had they been listening while trying to capture the perfect image of Finnerty’s stoic face – and they weren’t from my observation – was sickening and sad beyond measure.  Toward the end of the trial, the judge asked the wife and daughter if they had anything to say before he passed sentence on the monster’s bargained guilty plea.  They did.

Although the mother and that little girl had to be horrified that their only chance to safely confront the object of their stated hate was with all of those cameras and microphones in the room, they did not flinch as they bravely read their prepared statements.  They stated it all for the world to hear, but few were listening as the cameras clicked away still trying to get Finnerty to react.

The mother told of the many years of desparation and suspicion leading up to the day when she finally asked one of her daughters if what she suspected was true.  She recounted, in great detail, all of the verbal and physical abuse that she endured until she finally mustered the nerve to call the police.  Then the daughter spoke as my heart broke into little pieces.

I can’t even imagine the courage it took for that little girl to say what she said in that courtroom yesterday.  Without wavering, the slight now-15-year-old laid her “father” out so completely that I didn’t think it was possible for the monster sitting at the opposite table to sink any lower in his chair.  Just as he was about to disappear under the defendant’s table, the little girl’s voice rang out clearly and powerfully, “I HATE you…”  And the nation’s cameras just kept on clicking away at Flinnerty’s expressionless face.

No longer caring much about the Duke lacrosse story, I stayed long enough after hearing of those horrors to learn the punishment the judge had in store for the monster in the jumpsuit.  Although he will be put away long enough to not be a threat to his then-grown daughters, the sentence just didn’t seem to fit the utter devastation that asshole inflicted upon his “family”.

After the judge gavelled the trial closed, Flinnerty was called for his hearing.  The supportive entourage from the mother and daughter’s side of the courtroom filed out past me dodging scores of still and video cameras which sprung to life as the lacrosse player and his attorney made their way in front of the judge.  From the look on their faces, I could tell they were mortified at the unexpected and very public manner the family’s dirty laundry was being serendipidously aired. 

After catching close looks in some of their eyes, I sensed they agreed with me that the monster’s sentence didn’t nearly fit his heinous crimes.  I suspect if some of them had known that the metal detectors at the entrance to the courthouse had been given the day off to accomodate the nation’s press, that monster-of-a-father’s fate might have been much more swift and final than jurisprudence would allow.

I would have helped them escape after the deed was done.

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  1. Posted April 19, 2006 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    That’s a heck of an anecdote, David.

    FWIW, no journalist I’ve ever known enjoys media fusterclucks such as the one in Durham. I lived inside one for six weeks covering Jim Bakker’s trial back in ’89, and while I suppose it’s kind of like Mardi Gras — everybody ought to do it once, just for the experience — it’s not something you want to have to do regularly, primarily because it’s almost impossible to do any real reporting under those conditions.

    As for the case onto which you stumbled: Good God. I shudder to think what kind of deal was involved that gave this guy any sentence short of life. Sometimes complaining witnesses agree to plea deals to avoid having to testify, and yet reading her statement at sentencing probably was almost as appalling to her as having to testify and be cross-examined would have been. (Almost.)
    It would be interesting to know what the circumstances were … perhaps a lack of corroborating evidence made the DA unsure of his chances with a jury? Who knows?

    There are cases like that heard in Superior Court almost every day in the state’s larger counties (and several times a year, at the least, in the smaller ones). Most of them, for better or worse, escape public and media notice, and there’s not always a rhyme or reason to be found when they don’t. One of the happy accidents of my Bakker experience was that while the jury was out, I got to watch the presiding judge handle sentencings in other, unrelated cases. The experience gave me some valuable insight into how I should interpret what he said and did when Bakker was sentenced, weeks later — so much that I wrote about it beforehand, with names and other identifying details not included since it was random chance that had brought me into that courtroom and the defendants weren’t from our area anyway.

    Anyway, heckuva post.

  2. Posted April 19, 2006 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    This is one hell of a post. When I was in college one of the part-time jobs I held was as a title examiner. That meant spending a lot of time in the courthouse and when I had down time I’d go into the courtrooms and watch the trials. I sat in on one violent crime trial and it sickened me enough that I avoided going to any others.

    Thanks for the reality check.

  3. Posted April 19, 2006 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Thank you David. I hope your broken heart heals soon, but I suspect it won’t for a while.

  4. Posted April 19, 2006 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    At the risk of ditto’ing, great post Dave. Just great. “The media” is in a sad state, but “we the people” clamor for it, don’t we?

  5. Posted April 19, 2006 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Without a doubt the most compellling thing you’ve shared with us yet. If this is a sign of what’s to come in the News and Record, I just might stop stealing it out of my neighbor’s yard and pony up for a subscription. But seriously, you’re protrayal of my kind as a myopic group of plugged-in hacks and zoom-lens leaches is pretty much dead-on. All I can say about tv news sometime is that it seemed like a good idea when we started. That aside, everyone should do time in a courtroom and see how ugly life can be when halted and dissected.

    Thanks for the grand perspective. Keep the first-persons coming…

  6. Posted April 19, 2006 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    You guys are too kind… but thanks. I just call ‘em as they come along.

  7. David Wharton
    Posted April 19, 2006 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Raw and brilliant. Thanks, David

  8. Posted April 19, 2006 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Wow. And the “real” story is a bunch of spoiled rich white kids who are going to get away with what they did, if they did it.. Not the lives that were and are being devestated by this kind of everyday, “mundane” violence. At least we can be thankful that the poor 15 year old didn’t have the cameras pointed at her, that her sad tale wasn’t the sordid story of the moment.

  9. Posted April 20, 2006 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Lenslinger brought me here, and I’m better for it. I’ve had to sit in on a few of those horrible cases in my short time as a shooter, and they never get easier. I much prefer waiting outside while the reporter sits in on the proceedings. Here in Baton Rouge that kind of case would most likely have been covered; we’ve had several just as bad already. And even though the ‘journalists’ you witnessed that day had no sympathy for the story in front of them, I work with good people every day that are touched just as much as you have been by these same kinds of stories, and have to endure the same kind of sickening details on a regular basis. Sometimes I think it is unfortunate that we can’t broadcast some of these details, because many people just cannot imagine that one person could so something so foul to another, especially a defenseless child. Maybe if more people knew, there would be harsher penalties available, and the people to pursue them.

  10. Posted April 20, 2006 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I got here from Lenslinger’s sight as well. The mob mentality of journos on a big story always amazes me. Everyone so focused on not getting burned by the competition that they miss the story screaming in their free ear. I have been a member of too many of those myopic mobs huddled together around the deadbeat for the cuff-and-stuff while the victim eases out of court and with them the truly touching story of a world gone bad.

  11. Posted April 21, 2006 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Sorry for the cross-posting, but I think this comment I made on Cone’s blog in regards to the lacrosse case is fitting:
    Regardless of race, class, and circumstance, rape is a horrible violent crime, which this case is one of many. There were 94,635 rapes in the US in 2004(p19), or about 260 per day.

    Not to diminish the tragedy of the lacrosse/stripper case, but that is but one of many, many that don’t get the attention they deserve.

  12. Jay Haggerty
    Posted April 23, 2006 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I was in the courtroom wielding one of those cameras. It’s unfortunate that girl had to make her statement
    in front of a media mob. (And, we WERE listening, by the way. We’re people, too.)

    I would like to mention that a number of the journalists there, including myself, apologized to that family after the
    hearing was over. Just so your readers don’t think we’re all heartless. We all have jobs to do.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By David Boyd on April 20, 2006 at 7:33 am

    Things not covered widely are important also…

    A different take on the Duke lax story….

  2. [...] Heartbreaking I’m generally against the death penalty. But this father deserves it. By hanging and firing squad and thrown to the lions. [...]