Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Remembering to be sensitive covering a murder trial

A police officer assigned to security duty in the lobby of Toronto's Superior Court of Justice gave me a much needed reminder today that being a reporter also means being aware of how your behaviour at a scene when you are on the job covering a story, might affect other people.
I was waiting at 361 University Avenue today, covering the first degree murder trial of two men suspected of shooting a well-known Malvern resident, Colves Meggoe in November of 2006.
In the lobby, during the lunch recess, I sat beside a group of high school students from CHAT, a Toronto school, who were there waiting for their teacher to turn up. I assume this was part of their law and justice courses. Some of the students were playing a silly game while they waited (the teachers had not arrived yet) -- the girls would call out "DAAA-AD" or "MO-MMM" in a voice like they would use at home to call their own parents, and then wait to see which lawyer, or Crown prosecutor, or court employee who was walking by, would hear it, and turn their heads, thinking they had heard their own children calling to them. When one of the unsuspecting adults fell for the trick, the teens burst into giggles all around.
Okay, teens are teens, and so the police officer who was in the lobby didn't come over to reprimand them.
But when their energetic teacher arrived just before 2 p.m. and announced to the students in a loud voice that "the second floor is murder murder murder" and proceeded to describe for the students some of the details of the charges in each case and which court rooms the students were to go to, that was too much for this sensitive policeman.
He came over, and right in front of the students, interrupted the teacher, and reminded him that some of the people walking through the lobby were victims of crime, or survivors of victims, or were otherwise in the court because of tragedies, so he should be more respectful and dignified in his attitude, and his behaviour. There was an embarassed silence, and the teacher, to his credit, apologized, and lowered his tone of voice.

After words, I talked with the policeman, who told me he was happy to have this new job of lobby duty. He prefers it, despite today's incident, because he told me he couldn't stand being inside the courtrooms anymore, where he had spent years as a security officer, listening to testimony about all sorts of crimes.

"I know what human beings are capable of, " he said.

It was a sobering lesson and one I needed. Earlier, during the morning session of the trial, we were in a Voir Dire situation, when the jury was out of the room while counsel discussed some point of the trial with the judge. It was boring, so I started whispering to the people sitting around me, even pretended to play Xs and Os with some of them. My whispering attracted the attention of the clerk, who came over and chided me for being disruptive in a courtroom. He was completely right, and I should have known better.

I forgot for a moment, that while for a journalist, covering a trial is a job -- for the victims, and relatives and lawyers and police in the courthouse, the proceedings are deadly serious. And it's not a time or place to be disrespectful.