On May 26 the Canadian Journalism Foundation hosted The Media and Wrongful Conviction with criminal lawyer James Lockyer. The evening focused on murder cases where an innocent person served time.
The role of the journalist in these type of wrongful conviction cases is very important.
First let's examine the judicial system.
As Toronto lawyer James Lockyer stated at the beginning of his lecture:
"All human processes are human and prone to error. A criminal trial is a human process."
When dealing with the court a journalist has to examine the fallacies as they present their story. Those fallacies are plentiful for the court room is filled with humans.
But you're already ahead in the game so let's go back to the crime scene. While journalists aren't always allowed at the scene of the crime they can ask important questions. The early clues are vital for a fair hearing.
At the beginning we as journalists and the public want the same thing as the police, an answer. That answer takes time. Unless witnesses are at the scene and the crime is filmed it's difficult to get down to brass tacks, the suspect. There is often a rush to judgment, the easiest answer is the suspect. In many wrongful conviction cases that was the case. The innocent knew the victim, often they were in a relationship, were a relative or a neighbour.
That rush to judgment is not just due to the police, the public and the media is often on the bandwagon. In the recent case of Tori Stafford her mother was a very early suspect.
In this rush to judgment the journalist needs to be ready to look at the evidence presented and start asking vital questions. Are the witnesses reliable? Are the police and the witnesses telling the truth? Do the findings make sense? What types of forensics are being used as a means of pinpointing a suspect? Are those tests junk science?
Once the case makes it to the courtroom the journalist has a much more difficult task. They have to examine all the findings and observe them with a slightly jaundiced eye. Wide eyed innocence in the court room is not a practical way to cover a trial that may result in a person being sent away for life. A journalist now has a different set of questions to add to the first set, which should still be in play.
Is the Crown disclosing the information to the court? Is the defense council reliable? Can the jury grasp the information being present to them?
Mr. Lockyer observed that is should not surprise anyone that wrongful convictions can easily take place.
"What I would like to see is reporters covering cases with a jaundiced eye."
It's not difficult that the media can be a key element in murder cases. That element can be both positive and negative. The media can ask questions, find witnesses and examine findings with a new eye that police can use. On the other hand the media can put pressure on the police to help a suspect that results in a rush to judgment before the evidence supports that finding.
After the trial the journalist has not lost their importance. This is the time when a journalist may have to take on the establishment. To raise questions about if an innocent has been convicted of a crime. The journalist may be the only voice a wrongly convicted person has to have a voice.
Sadly there isn't enough of this type of reporting going on. Once the case has closed it's time for the next story. Often though it's just the beginning of the story. These stories are not easy nor do they have a pre-set wrap up time. They take long hours of research, interviews and aren't always that popular. They are when the journalist is most needed though. That in itself, makes it an issue that journalists must strive to improve on.
An innocent person's life may just depend on it.