Playing judge and jury

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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“Aye, ye dinnae ken me but I ken you. You’re the lass that didnae play for your country.”

That’s the sentence that greeted Gail Munro, a team member — and the skip — of the curling team that won the 2008 Scottish women’s curling championship. She had turned around in a restaurant in her home town when she’d heard her name mentioned, and the quote above came from an older man she’d never met.

It’s a tangled tale, one where Munro’s curling fortunes had quickly ebbed after winning the championship, and she’d been benched after poor play in the women’s curling world championship in Vernon, B.C.

After she was benched, the team coach said Munro had later been asked to return to the team’s last two games and had refused to represent her country. In fact, she hadn’t been asked, and hadn’t refused. But the coach’s statement stuck until this week, when Gail Munro won a defamation suit against the coach in the Scottish Court of Sessions, which ordered the coach pay the curler some $34,000 in damages.

But this isn’t really a column about curling. It’s about public perception.

It’s about the way an elder Scotsman could know so much about “the lass that didnae play” for her country, and how we could think that we know so much more than juries who sit on cases like the quickly notorious Casey Anthony case in the United States.

Casey Anthony has been in jail for more than two years as charges that she murdered her daughter wended their way through court. On Tuesday, a jury acquitted Anthony of those charges, but convicted her on four counts of misleading police.

The response?

Pretty much close to outrage, both in the States and in Canada. Facebook messages condemning Anthony abound, all based on the information that people outside the trial have been able to cobble together.

There’s been plenty of information: some cable networks, among them HLN (carried on cable stations in this province) have made the case a staple of their prime-time coverage. And the verdict in the preliminary trial-by-media was a clear one: guilty as sin.

“Tot murder mom,” as she was dubbed by some commentators, was pilloried for being a party girl, for getting tattoos, for manufacturing confusing and false stories about her own behaviour and about what had happened to her daughter. It was spectacular ad hominem work: if she wasn’t guilty, well, she oughta be.

Fair trial

Problem is, when you’re learning everything you know about a court case from the media, you really are getting a Cole’s Notes version — or less. Hours of testimony is condensed down into 10 broadcast sentences or maybe 450 words or so in print. They are a great general idea of what happened in court — but they are far from the only things that happened during any day in court.

One of the great frustrations for trial lawyers is seeing a whole day’s worth of legal work condensed into a one-and-a-half minute news report (what the news industry calls “a buck and a half”). It’s a frustration for reporters who cover court, as well.

In broadcast journalism especially, you don’t really have any time for grey areas in the courtroom — you cover the black and white issues as best you can, but nuance, well, there’s not a lot of time for that.

Good reporters in court recognize the limits of the media they work in — and if you talk to them, you’ll find that they tend to be far more sanguine about the results of trials than you might expect. Often, they can give you an educated guess that both turns out to be right and, at the same time, is in complete opposition to what reviewing their reports would suggest should happen.

What it comes down to, in the end, is a society’s representatives in the courtroom, whether that’s a jury or a judge alone. There seems to be some strange prevailing sentiment that the moment a jury is empanelled, they become some sort of group of bumbling, easily led simpletons. That’s not the case: juries hold a person’s future in their hands, and they also are keenly aware of victims and their families. To suggest that you can decide guilt or innocence better — based on the scant few minutes you devote to a case in a day, compared to their full days in court — is hubris in the extreme.

It also makes the howls of protest about Anthony being found not guilty kind of scary, in the same way that public lynchings masquerading as justice are scary.

You don’t know everything that happened in court, you certainly don’t know everything that actually happened and you don’t have a clue what was said in the jury room.

You know what your perception is — and to be blunt, the perception about Anthony years before her trial began was that she was guilty. It was trial by media — and that’s not how anyone’s justice system is supposed to work.

We can know a lot of things that we really don’t know anything about at all.

Like the idea that “you’re the lass that didnae play …”

And you’re the lass that got away with murder …

Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Scottish Court, The Telegram

Geographic location: Vernon, Canada

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  • Marie
    July 13, 2011 - 06:04

    Excellent article. Might I add that negative misperceptions and falsehoods can also permeate our lives on a personal level. This is why malicious gossip and condescending remarks about another human being are so destructive. We tend to be too easily lead and believe whatever we hear. The bullying phenomenon doesn't just exist in media or in schoolyards. It's also alive and well in workplaces, within families, within church congregations, et cetera. There's much to be said for thinking for yourself.