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Report to Readers

Report to Readers: One aggravated judge, one aggravated lawyer

Twice in recent days the Monitor’s reporting has apparently gotten under the skin of participants in criminal proceedings. In both cases, the reporter was simply doing her job.

The first instance was during the Rwandan genocide case that played out in federal court this month. Among the most interesting stories we published on the trial was from Feb. 13. It carried this front-page headline: “Judge blasts prosecution in genocide trial; Case ‘unbalanced,’ drawn out, he says.”

The story, written by reporter Tricia L. Nadolny, described Judge Steven McAuliffe’s lecture to prosecutors the day before. His talk came after the jurors were dismissed for the day but before the courtroom had been cleared. In other words, it was delivered in public.

McAuliffe called the prosecutors’ case “unbalanced,” and, as Nadolny wrote, he accused them of eliciting 40 minutes of rambling testimony for every five minutes of evidence. Nadolny described the judge’s words as “harsh.”

The next morning, neither the judge nor the prosecutors were happy. In court, McAuliffe told the lawyers he was sorry about the story in the newspaper. He specifically took issue with the word “blast” and said he didn’t think it applied to his demeanor and that he didn’t think the reporter even knew what it meant.

One of the prosecutors told the judge he was concerned that the story gave the impression that they had done something wrong. He asked McAuliffe to see if any jurors had read the article.

When the jurors came in, McAuliffe reminded them of the guidelines he had set before: that they shouldn’t take in any media coverage of the case. He specifically said it was important that they not be affected by the commentary of others because they were the ones who were there every day and had seen all the evidence.

Did the headline or the story overstate the case? Words like “blast” and “harsh” are characterizations, but based on the quotes from McAuliffe in the story, I think they were fair. Equally important, the story gave readers an interesting window into the back-and-forth between the lawyers and judge in a high-profile case, the sort of conversation, we assume, that more often goes on behind closed doors.

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The second case was reported in this morning’s Monitor. The defense attorney in a murder-for-hire case tried unsuccessfully to convince a judge to move the pending trial out of Merrimack County. She argued that the Monitor’s coverage would make it impossible to select an impartial jury.

When I first heard about this possibility, it struck me as unusual. After all, if convicted cop-killer Michael Addison could be tried in Manchester despite exhaustive media coverage there, how could the case of Brian Schultz warrant a different approach?

There’s some irony here, too. Nadolny has written several good stories about the Schultz case, including a Sunday Monitor article based largely on her interviews with an informant whom Schultz met at the Merrimack County jail. It’s not often that Monitor reporters get to cover stories that include murder-for-hire plots, complete with allegations of extortion and prostitution. But while Schultz’s lawyer argued that our coverage of the case had tainted the jury pool, my impression at the time of the stories was just the opposite. Public reaction to the dramatic tale seemed strangely muted. We got few website comments, phone calls or letters to the editor; I don’t recall the stories causing much buzz in town, despite the eye-opening details.

Trust me, the case is worth paying attention to. If you missed our stories last year, be sure to follow our coverage of the trial this spring.

(Felice Belman can be reached at fbelman@cmonitor.com or 369-3370.)

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