Editorial: Move trials, lose coverage

Whatever the justification for moving trials, it prohibits the ability to report on cases that are of great importance to our community.

Last week, perhaps the biggest trial Cranbrook has ever seen came to an end with three Cranbrook men sentenced for, in two cases, conspiracy to commit murder, and in the third case, counselling a crime not committed.

Except that Cranbrook never saw the trial, because it was held in Kamloops. Defense lawyers successfully argued that the high-profile case should be moved to the larger city for two reasons. First: Cranbrook’s little courthouse could not handle the security necessary to make the trial safe. Second: we, the local news media, had extensively covered the little information not behind a publication ban before the trial was held.

Meanwhile, this week a defense lawyer for Cheyenne Learn phoned into Cranbrook Supreme Court. After a successful appeal, Learn has been granted a re-trial over charges of murder for the December 2007 death of Tammy Ellis in Cranbrook.

The defense lawyer told the judge that he plans to apply for the trial to be moved, again to Kamloops. Though the move has not been approved yet, he mentioned the post-appeal publicity in the local news media, which again would be the Townsman, as a reason for moving the case.

So what is a journalist supposed to deduce from these two instances? It seems simple: we can choose between reporting a crime when it occurs and the lead-up to the trial, or reporting on the trial itself.

The problem is, in this day and age, no community newspaper in the country has the resources or the budget to send a reporter away for three months to cover a trial in another city.

In the conspiracy trial, we begged and pleaded with a competitor newspaper in Kamloops to send a court reporter to cover a case that has little interest to their own readers. We were lucky: they agreed.

Now, it seems like we’ll have to call on them again to cover Learn’s re-trial.

It seems ridiculous to have to point this out, but it is in the public interest that your local media report on high-profile local cases. Reporters in faraway cities don’t understand what facets of the case are the most important to Cranbrook residents; and of course they aren’t familiar with locations. They don’t realize that before the conspiracy arrests were made, most people in this city had no idea there were criminal gangs operating here, and which hotels they frequented.

During the conspiracy trial, just about every week someone on our news staff was asked by family, friends and acquaintances for an update on the case.

Even if you put aside the public interest, what about the witnesses and the families of the victims and the accused? If they want to attend these trials, they are expected to put their lives on hold for three months, and pay for travel to and accommodation in a city a long way from home. They must separate themselves from their support network at a time when they most need it, during one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives.

We aren’t blaming the lawyers here: defense lawyers must represent their client’s best interests, and it’s true that in these cases selecting a jury from a limited pool in a city of 20,000 is difficult when most people who are eligible for jury duty are also the kind of people who read the paper every day.

And we are fortunate to have Crown counsel in this town who are happy to communicate with the media whenever we request it.

In the conspiracy case, the prosecutor offered to be interviewed by the paper throughout the sentencing.

In another recent case, a crime occurred in Cranbrook but the case was moved to Port Coquitlam at the offender’s request. The head prosecutor in Cranbrook insisted to the judge that he be allowed to appear in the Port Coquitlam court via video, so that the Townsman could sit with him in the courtroom in Cranbrook and follow along during the hearings.

But the fact is: whatever the reasons, the mitigating circumstances, the justification for moving these trials, it prohibits our ability to quickly, accurately and fairly report on cases that are of great importance to our community.

We do have a means of recourse: we could hire a lawyer of our own and appeal the application to move cases out of our city. But that would be more expensive than sending a reporter out of town to cover the trial, and if we can’t afford that, well…

Perhaps this is just another downside of living in a small city at the far edge of the province. Perhaps it’s just one of the pitfalls of a justice system that is, for the most part, fair and unbiased.