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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Coverage of the Courts

The recent story about a bird lover in Texas who shot and killed a cat illustrates a problem with press coverage of our courts.

Why did the story make The New York Times? I love cats, and birds, but did that story really deserve that kind of national attention?

Well, I have theory about the way the press covers courts. Most articles about courts will fall into one of a few categories:

* Something horrible happened--think murder, rape, child molestation.

* Someone famous was involved--think Winona Ryder and shoplifting.

* Someone powerful was involved--think Larry Craig.

* Large amounts of money were involved--think Enron.

* Something unusual, bizarre, or ironic was involved--think bird lover shoots cat.

But what about stories that go to the very core of our justice system, stories about corrupt judges, abusive prosecutors, or unethical attorneys. What about stories about judicial rulings that are clearly contrary to established law? Why do judges take these actions, and how are citizens harmed by them?

I would guess that such stories are out there every week, in all 50 states. But how many daily newspapers or TV news programs cover them?

Consider coverage of two stories we've followed closely here at Legal Schnauzer. When former Governor Don Siegelman and HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy were on trial in Alabama, it was a major story. It involved a defendant with power and a defendant with money. But once they were convicted, the state's press lost interest. Critically important stories about the conflicts of Judge Mark Fuller and prosecutorial abuses by Leura Canary's office have drawn little attention.

The same thing has happened with the Paul Minor case in Mississippi. The trial itself was big news--it involved lots of money and lots of power. A few national journalists (Scott Horton of Harper's, Adam Cohen of The New York Times) and a few members of the alternative press have reported on the raging conflicts of prosecutor Dunn Lampton and the numerous unlawful rulings by Judge Henry Wingate. But that story, so far, has gone largely unreported in the mainstream Mississippi press.

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