What it takes: Reporting on the trials of a BP agent charged with murder, manslaughter
Beginning in January, TucsonSentinel.com published more than three dozen articles this year on the prosecution of Lonnie Swartz, the Border Patrol agent accused of unlawfully shooting and killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in October 2012.
This included not only the opinion pieces written by our own award-winning columnist Blake Morlock, but also one from Edward J. Weisenburger, the Roman Catholic bishop of Tucson. The rest of the articles were written by me, Paul Ingram. Some of these were republished by the Nogales International.
What this required was time, and a lot of notebooks: 17 legal pads and two reporter's notebooks, just reporting on the trials alone.
Time in the courtroom, focused on testimony from witnesses and experts. Time waiting for hearings to start, standing in hallways or sitting on hard courtroom benches. Time spent with the boy's family, and speaking with prosecutors and defense attorneys. Driving to Nogales, and tracking the case in the years leading up to the trial. Beginning in 2012 and leading up to the trials, we reported nearly three dozen more stories about Swartz and Elena Rodriguez.
As Swartz's first trial finally drew near last winter, we focused our reporting on motions hearings and legal briefs filed through the federal court's public access website known as PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records. This year alone, my own bill for PACER was $237 spread across three quarterly statements, which doesn't sound like much, until you realize that PACER's rate is 10 cents per page.
Because U.S. District Court Judge Raner C. Collins does not allow electronic devices in his courtroom, every note was taken by hand, either by sitting on the courtroom's unpadded seats, or going downstairs to a room known as "the Fishbowl" where because the tele-video system was aimed at the court's seal, reporters and the family could listen in but not see the proceedings.
From March 21 to April 23, TucsonSentinel.com reported on the trial, trying to capture the legal complexities and the emotion of 16 days of detailed testimony, and once the jury found Swartz not guilty of second-degree murder, the resulting fury from protestors. Then, we covered plans for a retrial, and then the second trial, including another 15 days of testimony in the courtroom in Downtown Tucson. That trial finally ended on Nov. 21, when the jury announced that Swartz was not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Even after that, we published one more piece, announcing that prosecutors would not file charges again, effectively ending the criminal prosecution of Swartz for killing Jose Antonio.
These were long, hard days.
In April, there was a moment when the trial was too much.
As a medical examiner went through, moment by moment, how each bullet traced its way through the 16-year-old boy who died that night, a photograph of Jose Antonio's battered face remained on the screens shown to the gallery.
I stared at Jose Antonio's battered face all day—the cracked teeth, the hole in his cheek, the mess of scrapes and bruising across the faint thin mustache of a 16-year-old boy. And I thought about what happened to him when 10 rounds rocketed through his body, smashing through organs and spalling pieces of his spine and ribs into his heart and lungs.
How one shot cut apart the helix of his ear before it plowed into his skull and smashed everything that made him him, before departing his skull and how his scalp caught the bullet like a net.
Later that day, I went to pick up my son at his elementary school. He'd fallen in the wood chips in the playground and his cheek around his right eye was a blotchy red.
I nearly sobbed there, but instead, I kept my voice from cracking by hugging him too tight.
During the second trial, Jose Antonio's mother, Araceli Rodriguez, knew when to leave. She would get up and walk into the hallway of the federal court building, and sit on the wood bench. And wait.
Meanwhile, his grandmother, Taide Elena, would try to stay, but when the violence of that night became too much, she too would leave and wait in the hallway, or go to a lower floor.
After the trial had ended, Araceli and Taide spoke to the media in front of the courthouse. At one point, they thanked me for being there every day, for sitting on the long wood benches and listening. I honestly didn't know what to say, and felt embarrassed for the attention. I didn't do anything but listen and write.
All I could say was "Lo siento," or "I'm sorry."
Why tell you this? Because I believe in journalism, and I think it matters to tell you that for the family of Jose Antonio, having a reporter sit in that courtroom and write in notebook after notebook about their loss and their sense of injustice was important to them. For Swartz, too — although he didn't speak with the press — having the defense presented by his attorneys fairly and accurately reported, and the reasons our legal system allowed him to walk out of court a free man, had to be important. The truth is important. For a reporter, being there — being present and discerning the facts — is important work.
I'm hoping it's important to you.
So, tonight I'm going to hug my son, and write.
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