Commercial Appeal court reporter discusses trial coverage 

April 7, 2011

Lawrence Buser has been a court reporter for the Commercial Appeal since November of 2008. He covered the Noura Jackson case from the beginning of the trial and gives his insight regarding this specific case, as well as other matters of media and the legal system.

Why do you think the media should cover criminal trials?
They're matters of public importance, safety and concern. The public is paying for every aspect of the court system - from the judges to the public defenders to court-appointed attorneys to the prosecutors, to the bailiffs - and it's important that they be allowed to see how justice is administered. We also make a public record of the proceeding that people can reference. (I just had a sequestered juror from out-of-town ask - through a bailiff - for copies of the final day's paper they could take back as souvenirs from the trial.)

What was the process in gathering information when covering the Noura Jackson case?
Leading up to the trial, I covered numerous pretrial hearings on issues such as suppression of evidence, discovery, etc; I also did interviews with, for example, a psychologist who spoke to the rarity of a daughter killing a mother; I relied heavily on obtaining court documents, such as search warrants, motions from both sides, divorce records and civil suits. During the trial itself, it's simply a matter of paying close attention to witnesses, identifying supporting or conflicting testimony, reading expressions of jurors if any and trying to follow where each side is going with their case. Most trials I cover with a notebook and pen, but in the bigger trials we now bring in the laptops and blog.

Were there any challenges in covering the Noura Jackson trial?
The family members of the victim were/are very private people, and it was difficult to get much background on her. Also, anytime there's such a high-profile trial the large number of reporters and photographers makes everything a little more difficult because the lawyers and judge are more on guard since they're under the spotlight.

Why were people so interested in this case?
The rarity of a daughter killing a mother (matricide) was certainly one. Then you add that this happened in a nice area of East Memphis and involved an attractive professional woman as the victim and a defendant who was her own teenage daughter and who had gone to all the best schools. (Probably for that reason, it seemed like half the town, both kids and their parents, knew Noura or knew of her.) There were strong lawyers on both sides and there was testimony about widespread recreational drug use and casual sex, both always headline grabbers in a murder trial. News is that which happens out of the ordinary and this entire case was certainly out of the ordinary. People don't want to believe a teenage girl could stab her mother 50 times.

When covering a case, how much information is gathered off the record?
Since I'm at the courthouse five days a week, I see the lawyers, judges, courtroom deputies and other personnel on a daily basis and am constantly picking up tips and tidbits about various cases. This was no exception. Someone might tell me a search warrant was just filed, someone else might say they're planning to argue a novel legal theory in the case. Even if I can't get a tip into print right away, it gives me a heads up on a hearing or a direction to follow.

Tell me about a case you covered when you believed the defendant to be guilty. Were you able to remain fair in your coverage, and how did you do it?
Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike will tell you that most defendants are guilty - either guilty of what they're charged with or guilty of something less. That being said, there are exceptions and you always keep that in mind. In covering a trial, I've always felt a story is more interesting if you can present both sides in a credible manner and let readers be the jurors. Many times the facts of the case make the story, but if there are good arguments on both sides  - and you have a defendant who, for example, has never been in trouble before - it makes a case more interesting. The conflict of a trial, the adversarial system, is not unlike that in sports and that's why both are constantly in the news. Trials are like live theater, but even with the best planning, lawyers are never totally sure if their witnesses will stick to the script. There's always a potential for disaster in any case.

Tell me about a case you have seen covered where a reporter may have acted illegally or unethically.
I can't think of anything right off hand that would be illegal or unethical, but in general I think most mistakes reporters make are because of laziness or not understanding the legal system. I've had the benefit of being here quite awhile, but electronic media reporters (who often must dash from one unrelated assignment to the next) make glaring errors of fact because they don't understand, assume too much and are more concerned with being first than with being right. It is irritating then to watch as photographers zoom in on the grieving families as they leave the courtroom or, oftentimes, while they're still sitting in the courtroom listening to how their loved one was murdered.

Tell me about an instance when you or another reporter may have helped the judicial process through reporting.
I've had people come forward with information on pending cases after they've read a story I did. That's happened a number of times. I once did a jailhouse interview with an accused murderer who was in the news and halfway through the interview he admitted the killing of a woman downtown. I asked him why and he replied, "I guess it's just in my nature." As the case got close to trial, both sides were asking me about the interview (I was hoping I wouldn't have to testify), but the defendant finally decided to plead guilty. I don't know how much the pretrial interview influenced his decision, but I think it may have made everyone's decision to go forward with a guilty plea - the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge - a little easier to make.

Story by Lauren Lee

Contact Lauren at lplee123@gmail.com