The courtroom where the trial of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs is taking place is a tiny place. So small they’ve had to assign seats. If you have a pass, you’re guaranteed a seat. There are about a dozen green passes for Warren Jeffs’ FLDS followers. There are a bunch of tan media passes. The photo passes are red, and there are only three of those. Then there are a limited number of yellow public passes. To get one of those, you have to show up at the crack of dawn and wait in line.
As for the media passes, it’s a pretty select group of writers and TV reporters who have covered polygamy or the Warren Jeffs for quite some time. But as I mentioned yesterday, there’s one “journalist” with a credential who has become quite close to the FLDS members who show up to support Warren.
First off, that’s not a big problem. Like I’ve said, there are writers from some publications who take positions on the issues they cover and write with an obvious slant to their writing. The FLDS community would certainly agree with that, as most of the coverage has been one-sided. Against them. I’d love to read something from their point of view.
I find that negative slant unfortunate and I try to be fair to all sides. But it’s also unavoidable when the insular FLDS refuse to respond to the charges leveled by their critics.
But back to the “journalist.” Last night the jury was called in at 8pm and there was a big crowd at the door to the court. About a dozen FLDS members were standing right at the front of the door, surrounded by cameras. And the “journalist” was standing with them. Here she is in her red high heels, standing next to an FLDS woman:
After a minute or so I noticed that every time a photographer (Jud Burkett of the Spectrum) lifted up his camera for a shot of the group, the “journalist” would move over in front of the FLDS woman, blocking the shot:
In all my years in this crazy field, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a member of the media blocking a camera like that.
And this “journalist” has one of the coveted tan media passes with its guaranteed seat in the courtroom. After seeing this, I really feel bad for the LA Times reporter who doesn’t have a pass and has had to show up to court at dawn every day, hoping for a public pass so he can do his job.
Write whatever you want. But if you actively prevent other media from reporting, your credential should be yanked immediately.
Covering polygamy, every journalist stands on different ground.
There are some who seem to think it is their personal duty to bring down Warren Jeffs.
There are some who try to remain objective and see all sides of the issue.
There are some who seem to think that the government is unfairly persecuting a religious minority.
In other words, all types. Just read their material and you can figure out which camp any writer belongs to. It isn’t hard. If it was hard to figure out, maybe I’d tell you which journalist was telling me the other day that the FLDS are just “dumb hillbillies who want to f* little girls.”
There was a press screening the other night for the documentary “Damned to Heaven.” In the film, a number of ex-FLDS members recount their stories. They’re all sad stories.
After the film there was a Q&A. The makers of the film and Flora Jessop (an anti-polygamy activist with an amazingly tragic life story) made some claims about abuse in the FLDS community of Short Creek. Among them:
1. The cemeteries in town are filled with children.
2. The rate of children involved in traffic accidents in Short Creek is 3X the national average.
And from Flora, this:
3. A lot of the children have their heads run over by cars. No autopsy is performed because it is ruled a traffic accident.
As a journalist who tries to see all sides, I wondered about these claims. Here are my concerns:
1. In the documentary we just watched, you had Gary Engels, an investigator with Mohave County, say something to the effect of: “two-thirds of the population of Short Creek are children under the age of ten.” (I hope I got that quote right. I’m going from memory here.)
I’ve spent time in the FLDS baby cemetery, as well as the Isaac Carling cemetery. The numbers didn’t seem out of proportion considering the makeup of the community, where women commonly have 7-10 children each and families routinely have 35-40 or even more children.
2. A couple of things come to mind on this one. First, the FLDS children can’t watch television, listen to rock music, play videogames, etc. So they do what kids everywhere used to do: they play outside.
This might explain why they are more likely to be hit by a car. Second, I’ve seen pickup trucks whose beds were filled with kids being driven home from school.
I’ve seen minivans loaded with children who were obviously not buckled up. It’s not right, but I could see how a mother loading up 10-15 kids into a minivan could rationalize against using seat belts for a quick trip across a town with no traffic lights.
3. I’m left wondering how many cultures throughout human history have actively targeted their own children for extermination. I’ve read a lot of what my wife calls, “Horror History,” studying the Khmer Rouge, Interahamwe, Ustashas, etc., and I can’t think of a group that intentionally killed their own kids.
Flora’s story would make an amazing book. I’d buy it immediately. But accusing people of intentionally driving cars over the skulls of their children? And no charges have been filed against anyone? A bit too much.
From the beginning of the Warren Jeffs trial, no photos were taken of the alleged victim (a girl who at the age of 14 was married to her 19-year-old cousin). We saw her on the stand and we saw her daily in court sitting with her husband and her lawyer, watching the proceedings.
A judge’s order prevented photos of Jane Doe or her family members. Professional ethics prevented us from photographing her as well. Most news organizations, including the Tribune, don’t name or identify rape victims.
(In fact, early in the trial a pool photo moved that repeatedly showed the victim’s first name in a powerpoint slide. Upon raising the alarm, I was told that the photo was moved with the idea that each agency would make their own decision on whether or not to use it. I made a quick call to the paper to make sure we killed it and when I used the photo in our daily multimedia update I had to crop it into a tiny strip to remove the many recurrences of the name.)
Then all the rules went out the window…
On the night before closing arguments, her representatives released a photo of her to a TV station and it was broadcast.
The release of the photo caused heated debate as media outlets wrestled with the ethics of publishing the image in a fiercely competitive business.
At the Tribune, we knew that publishing the photo would only come after some long discussion. But whether we were going to use it or not, we immediately moved to acquire the photograph. Thanks to connections made over years of covering this story, we had it within minutes.
The debate about publishing the photo, as I saw it:
Pro – The photo was released by the victim. It’s up to her to drop the veil of anonymity.
Con – The timing of the release, on the eve of jury deliberations, seemed…well…unsavory.
Pro – The jury had been instructed from day one to avoid all media reports on the case, so they wouldn’t see the photo.
Con – But what if they did?
Pro – Wait, wasn’t the photo shown in court as part of the evidence?
Con – Actually, this particular photo was not shown to the jury. It was not part of the evidence, so you have to ask why it wasn’t. And isn’t the victim pursuing a civil suit against Warren Jeffs as well? Releasing this photo of the victim is manipulating the situation. We shouldn’t be part of their game.
Pro – Then we should publish the photograph with an article listing those concerns and allowing someone to comment on the problems with the release.
Con – How many readers will actually read that and think it through?
The decision to publish was never mine to make. We published the photo.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been telling people I could picture the victim coming out in front of the cameras once the case was over. She’s already twice recounted, in open court, her story of being pressured into a marriage and raped at the age of 14. Would it be any harder for her to comment if they found Warren Jeffs guilty?
Or, if he was found not guilty, putting herself in the public spotlight would be a good maneuver for sympathy in her upcoming civil case.
After the jury went into deliberation, one of the victim’s attorneys, Greg Hoole came out to the assembled media and made a statement where he used the victim’s full name. I was seeing all the rules crumble in front of me.
Then, he came out and started handing out copies of the photo to anyone who wanted them. He said the photo was taken when the victim was 14-years-old, seven months before her marriage.
We continued to have concerns over the photo, especially when we realized that it hadn’t been presented as evidence in the trial. It was obviously picked specifically to present the image of a young girl. To me, she looked younger in the released photo than she had in the photos taken the night before her wedding, which we picked up the next day. I could be wrong. Why don’t you compare for yourself. The first handout on the left, and the wedding photo at right:
Too bad we can’t take that tape measure in the photo and do a measurement on the girl in each photo.
Things I made note of during the trial…
After the jury went into deliberations, the alleged victim in the case approached two photographers to thank them for their work covering the trial. One told me he didn’t make any response (as doing so could have been considered a sign of bias).
One of the pool photos from inside the court had a TV personality from one channel in the background. When another channel aired the photo, there was a big splotch in it, blurring out the competition’s man. It wasn’t like there weren’t other photos to choose from, but I guess blurring parts of an image isn’t a big deal for TV.
As I sit here now before the verdict comes down, I could see the case going either way. But everyone I’ve talked to all week seems to have a definite opinion on whether Warren Jeffs will be found guilty or innocent. Am I stupid for still grappling with the facts of the case? Or does that make me smart?
Of course, if I did have an opinion on the case I wouldn’t tell you.
There’s one woman here, allegedly covering the trial for a newspaper. She keeps to herself, and has told other people that she hates all of the other writers. She says they keep getting things wrong. The writers all tell me there’s something wrong with her. Then at the end of the trial she showed up at the court with her hair pulled up in braids and wearing a long-sleeved pink pastel dress (just like Warren Jeffs’ supporters). What’s going on?
I had to wear long pants whenever I was in court. As soon as I made it back to the room, the shorts went on. I wonder if anyone noticed that over several days in court I was rotating between only three pairs of long pants?
A reporter who came into town Friday peeked into my room and said it looked like I’d moved right in. I guess the flat panel TV, speakers, Xbox360, computer setup, groceries, stack of books, videos, etc. were the dead giveaway. Not that I ever had much time to enjoy any of those things. Every day was a lot of work.
Best thing I brought: speakers. Being able to listen to music in the room through quality speakers helped me to keep sweet.
After fourteen days in St. George, trying not to repeat dinner became more and more challenging. Even the best restaurant in town started to suck on the third visit.
Late last night one of my boys called. He said he couldn’t get to sleep because he missed me so much. This has been a long trip. Hopefully today is the end.
Now the jury is deliberating. And we wait…
I’m told that when Judge James Shumate approved the use of remote cameras in the courtroom for the Warren Jeffs trial, it was unprecedented. The photo above shows a camera pointed at the defense table and one at the podium where attorneys presented their arguments. These cameras were triggered via wireless from the “cry room.”
As the trial went on, the remotes were fine-tuned. Who knew that by wrapping a down jacket over a camera, you could nearly silence it?
This remote was in the back of the courtroom, aimed at the witness stand. It worked very well, except for when Allen Steed took the stand. He was so soft-spoken that he ended up testifying on his feet. The court’s video feed of Steed’s testimony showed only his belt buckle and part of his shirt.
Until I get a chance to blog about yesterday’s trip to Short Creek, here’s the slideshow.