Upstairs / downstairs

 

Upstairs

 

I’d expected a crowd.  Instead, when we arrived at the Richard B. Russell Federal Courthouse for the probation revocation hearing of the rapper known as T.I., there were four people waiting.

WXIA photog Dan Reilly and I got there about 75 minutes ahead of the scheduled 2pm hearing.  Truth is, I kinda figured that T.I., whose real name is Clifford Harris, was already in the courthouse.  He had four well-known Atlanta lawyers from three different firms on his defense team.  Given the fact that they’re all paid by the hour, the advance briefing could have taken days, much less hours.  And it was likely already underway somewhere inside the 23 story courthouse building.

“Is he here yet?”  I asked a guy from TMZ who, in a previous life, had worked at WSB.  Another guy with a still camera piped up.  “I’ve been here since 8:30 am.  I haven’t seen him.”

But these folks were staked out at the rear of the building.  The actual main entrance was on the opposite side, and there was another at the basement level.   WXIA had sent another photog to stake out the lower entrance.  Reilly and I walked to the front.  The four others followed.

As we arrived in front, a woman in a serious suit passed us.  “Just waitin’ for T.I.,” I said.  “He’s not here yet,” she answered with authority, as if she actually knew what she was talking about.  “2307,” she added, correctly giving the courtroom number.  Then she ducked into the front entrance.  She’d said what I wanted to hear,  whoever she was.  Yet I was only slightly encouraged.

There was plenty of other news Friday; getting a moving picture of T.I. entering the courthouse apparently wasn’t a Code Red priority for anybody except a couple of paparazzi.   A proper stakeout takes a commitment of resources:  At least two photogs, who probably should have begun their stakeout at 8am at both entrances.

Except as a piece of photojournalism, the news value of the shot was negligible.  We all know what the guy looks like.  He was unlikely to say anything newsworthy, if he said anything at all.

And yet — it’s the kind of shot you’d hate to miss, especially if a competitor has it.  As we stood outside the front of the courthouse, other TV stations and freelancers showed up.  Even a CNN crew made the four-block walk to the stakeout.

At this point, folks with cameras just camped out wordlessly next to us.  They appeared to simply assume that, because a scrum was slowly enlarging outside the courthouse, there must be a good T.I.-related reason for it.

 

Downstairs: Stephen Boissy and company

 

By the time I abandoned Reilly  and went inside, about thirty people were waiting with him.  When I got to the 23rd floor courtroom, Clifford “T.I.” Harris was sitting on a bench with his attorneys.   He apparently managed to enter the building without being photographed, probably hours earlier.

Since we’d missed T.I.’s entrance, it became essential to cover his exit.   Local TV stations sent extra photographers to cover the basement exit, which sits in an industrial gulch below street-level, lodged within a parking lot, a loading dock and several sets of railroad tracks.

After the hearing ended, I played a hunch and told Reilly I was going downstairs.  T.I. had just lost his bid to stay out of jail.  Losers in the courtroom don’t typically hold news conferences on the steps of the courthouse; they usually slink out of the basement.

WXIA photog Stephen Boissy had seen T.I.’s wife exit downstairs moments before I arrived.  After I’d gotten there, his attorney Ed Garland exited.  “I’m not going to make any comment…” he began before telling the assembled cameras how disappointed he was, and answering a follow-up question.

 

Worth the wait?

 

A few minutes later, Garland drove his BMW up to the exit door, sixty feet from where the US Marshals had allowed the downstairs cameras to assemble.  T.I. exited the courthouse door, opened the passenger door, then stopped.  He waved to some people, standing there long enough for photogs to zoom in and focus, then slowly ducked into the car.  “Mr. Harris, could you stop and answer a question?” I hollered halfheartedly.  Upstairs, the majority of the T.I. stakeout was recording a news conference by the prosecutor.

Harris ignored my question.  A few TV photogs sprinted ahead of the car to record the vehicle’s exit.  Boissy’s video image of Harris lasted just a few seconds, the end product of about six man-hours of stakeout.

During her confirmation hearings, the newest Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan suggested that cameras should be allowed to cover SCOTUS arguments.  If this happened, it could allow cameras into federal courtrooms.  Overturning this Warren-era restriction is long, long, long overdue.  Thanks for asking.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

9 thoughts on “Upstairs / downstairs

  1. juanita driggs

    The caption under the pic asks: “Worth the wait?”…Not really. The viewers wouldn’t have been the poorer if this and many other stories like them had been summarily reported with 15 seconds of anchor-read accompanied by an over the shoulder graphic or pic.

    As for cameras in federal courts, the older I get, the more I’m inclined to say, NO. Leave it as it is…other than maybe SCOTUS arguments…maybe.

    There’s already too much media circus swirling in state courts. May be time to reconsider cutting back a lot of the voyeur silliness that passes for “video” journalism in these venues as well.

    Bring a couple of legal pads and a good sketch artist and see if the two of you can still remember how to tell a compelling story.

    Reply
  2. AdamM

    First off I think this is a great story for TMZ to stake out… or a 15-second anchor read for a local newscast. But I understand you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to change the face of local news…

    Moreso, I think this serves as an example of how convenient life would be for tv journalists if cameras were allowed in a courtroom. Suddenly reporters would WANT to cover court b/c it would be a one-stop shop for footage and sound. However there’s a serious downside that goes well beyond the world of info-tainment alive at 11.

    I think people act differently on camera… and the fear of the blinking red news light may alter testimony much more than that ole’ promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you Monica.

    Reply
  3. Sam

    This story wasn’t even worth covering with reporters/photographers. I agree with Juanita, something the anchor could have read and have been done with it. Maybe I’m showing my age… if so, TMZ was there to cover it for those interested in that sort of thing.
    I also agree with Juanita re: cameras in the federal court, I hope it stays as is. I still recall the circus atmosphere of the O.J. trial (in Calif.Superior Court). It is the general opinion of that trial that the judge and attorneys did behave differently knowing that the cameras were there.
    True that courtrooms are public but that doesn’t translate into cameras.

    Reply
  4. Randy Travis

    So we’re afraid to let the public see exactly what goes on inside the highest court in the land? Come on. Do you really think the Supreme Court will become a circus because there are cameras there? What lawyer is going to start performing for a camera when Antonin Scalia is in the room?

    The Supreme Court has no witnesses. It’s just lawyers. Yet through some misguided belief that it violates the sanctity of justice, the court won’t even allow audio of the hearings to be broadcast live. Audio?

    We’re supposed to be a free and open society. The Supreme Court should come out of the shadows so this country can understand how all three branches of government work. Or don’t work.

    Reply
    1. juanita driggs

      Nice try, Randy but yes, the Court would be at risk of becoming a circus whether it’s video or audio, only…and Scalia probably would be one of the first jurists to engage in a bit of theatrics given his effusive personality. BTW, Scalia won’t be there forever so that argument isn’t quite relevant.

      What the Supreme Court exists for is not about the public’s “immediate” right or gratification to know but it IS all about decorum and precise due process. Lawyers and justices must stay intently focussed without gratituitous distractions. The public has plenty of opportunities to see and hear almost in real time how justices decide on cases these days now that they’re making themselves more available via C-Span, PBS and university forums.

      Want to advocate for more court openess? Try to start a campaign
      to gain access to grand jury proceedings. That would be a gold mine for a fine investigative reporter like you but good luck with that! Ask any reputable D. A. or U. S. Attorney why this shouldn’t be and you’ll get an ear full of why electronic media access is not appropriate. Admittedly a grand jury isn’t the U. S. Supreme Court but some of the same reasons apply.

      Reply
  5. Sam

    Randy,
    my comments were actually toward federal district courts, which is why I gave the O.J. trial as an example. I’m not really against cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court except that, once done, it would likely be precedent for getting them into the U.S. District Courts, which I’ve already expressed my views on.

    Reply
  6. Rick

    Remember everybody, all this is is a blog entry about how much effort it took to get one, small element of a news report. The blog entry is not the actual story that aired. It would help to see the actual story as it aired, because I’m guessing the reporter merely included the brief video of T.I. as only one small part of the news report (in addition to including the courtroom sketches).

    Maybe the blog should have also pointed out, for certain readers interested in making sure everybody knows they don’t care about T.I., that this also goes on outside the federal courthouse during trials of people like mortgage-fraud swindlers who cheat thousands of Georgians out of millions of dollars while destroying entire neighborhoods, or public officials who steal from taxpayers, or store-front physicians who peddle imported, prescription drug knockoffs to our kids. Those are the types of stories that dominate coverage of the federal courts in Georgia, not the T.I./TMZ types of stores.

    The way I read this entry, it’s not just about the media dodge that an Atlanta multi-millionaire who influences impressionable young people was able to pull off outside the federal courthouse after a judge ordered him back to jail. So what, but the news crews should go the extra mile to get everything they can to tell as full a story as possible by deadline. Showing the defendant actually at the courthouse conveys the impact and power of the federal judicial system to make even the mighty bow down to the nation’s laws. All you want is for the anchor to sum it up in 15 seconds with an over the shoulder file photo? The courts have their job to do, but if all you want is to be spoon fed info from the official court transcripts, if someone has to explain to you why it’s also important to the victims of federal crimes and to the general public interest for reporters and photographers to go after every story, even a T.I. story, independently and aggressively, outside the courtroom, God help us all.

    The other issue is cameras inside the federal courtrooms. When I was a reporter, I saw flamboyant attorneys and witnesses ham it up for juries in those camera-less federal courtrooms, and I saw those same attorneys and many witnesses put juries to sleep in GA courtrooms that had a news camera in the back. Attorneys are going to conduct themselves according to what they think is best for their clients in any particular case, and according to what the judge will let them get away with. I’d argue that they’re more likely to behave when cameras are present. Judges often order cameras not to show certain witnesses during the course of a trial, and cameras are never allowed to show jurors during the trial. Cameras don’t make a courtroom a “circus,” no trial is going to turn into a circus unless a judge loses control of the courtroom regardless of whether cameras are present. Blame Judge Ito, not the cameras. Courtrooms are public in this country, period, for good reason, and cameras are as much a part of that as is a member of the public who is inside the courtroom taking notes for an after-the-fact news story based on that person’s powers of observation and hearing. I’d rather see it for myself. The Supreme Court will come around eventually and open up the process in the federal court system, and it will be for the good of justice, not because members of the lifetime-appointed federal judiciary think it’ll be cool for their adoring public to see them acting all judge-like on TV.

    And to the person who wrote that federal courts should be closed to cameras for the same reasons that grand jury proceedings are secret, I don’t understand how one equates to the other. Courts are open to the public. Grand juries are secret, as in — closed to the public, including the print media and the electronic media. They’re two different animals in the zoo. You’re confusing the issue, or you’re confused. I’m sure you don’t mean that federal courts should be closed to the public for the same reasons that grand juries are. The public who can’t get to a federal courtroom will see how federal trials are conducted, they’re a lot like trials in the states’ courts, and the republic will not only survive but thrive.

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      Though a bit wordy, I agree with Rick (and Randy, of course). Attorney Bruce Harvey danced during his opening statement in the Gold Club trial in federal court. There was no camera to provoke him. Apart from the OJ case, anybody who’s been in a courtroom with a camera present — including judges — will tell you that there’s zero “circus” atmosphere added by the presence of the camera. The US Senate also thought cameras would upset decorum. and they didn’t. The Supremes use the same excuse, and it’s just an excuse based on their own overblown egos. Let there be light.

      Reply
      1. juanita driggs

        The reason why C-Span doesn’t upset the “decorum” of the U. S. Senate is because it’s hard to disturb a group that’s usually sleep walking.

        Reply

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