Saturday, November 08, 2008

SNAFU scuttles press coverage of Navy court-martial

Via the NIMJ web site, here's a link to an article from the Virginian-Pilot about a contested judge-alone attempted murder court-martial tried at Norfolk last week.

Proceedings began on Tuesday, when the military judge continued the case until January with the possibility of returning on the record sooner if a PTA was reached. Following the continuance, a Virginian-Pilot reporter asked a PAO to inform her of any developments in the case. Contrary to initial expectations, the case actually proceeded to trial on Wednesday. But apparently the PAO wasn't informed that the case had resumed until Friday, when the case had already resulted in a conviction and sentencing proceedings were underway. And because the PAO didn't know the case had restarted, neither did the reporters who were attempting to follow it.

Mistakes happen. But one must wonder whether a culture of insularity contributed to this mistake. After all, if public and press access to proceedings is a core value of a system, a mistake like this is less likely to occur than if public and press access is viewed as a necessary evil. And if a particular office has a close working relationship with the base PAO, it is far less likely that the office would forget to notify the PAO when plans change than if dealings with the PAO are infrequent and/or unwelcome.

Interestingly, the Tully Center for Free Speech's recent empirical study of the availability of public information about court-martial proceedings (which we discussed here) found that the Navy provided less information about court-martial proceedings than any other branch of the military.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Is it a result of poor communication with the press or deliberate action to exclude the press? Several competing interests here: (1) The CA isn't going to bend over backwards to inform the press about anything. (2) The defendant usually doesn't want his name in the paper. (3) The defense attorney usually does want his name in the paper, in the case of a civilian counsel, usually very badly. (4) The trial counsel isn't going to be bothered with any of this at all.

John O'Connor said...

I think Anon 1334's comment here is perceptive. As a TC, Iwas neither pro-media access nor against it. I just didn't care and wasn't going to do much about it.

Toussaint-Guillaume Picquet de la Motte said...

Was there any indication that the Navy tried to keep this from public view? No. That would serve no purpose. The accused seems to have been given a fair trial and sentence. This is not like the incident about 15 years ago w/SECNAVs son. How many times have we done a case that was "fit in" to accommodate scheduling? What would the MJs reaction have been if the TC said in an 802, "Sorry Judge Bailey we can't do this trial on this date as it is not convenient for the press." Having actually worked in a news room and as a reporter I can say that it is upon the press to check and be persistent about such things.

Dwight Sullivan said...

Count Picquet de la Motte,

I think that view is overly generous to the Navy and overly harsh toward the Virginian-Pilot. The reporter asked to be informed if proceedings started again sooner than planned. It appears that the PAO agreed to provide that information. Then the hearing restarted the next day but no one bothered to tell the PAO.

Both the TC and the PAO work for the federal government. The federal government should live up to its word. Where one agent of the federal government with apparent authority agrees to provide certain information to the media, then other agents of the federal government should ensure that that agent has the promised information.

Whether the mistake in this case was the PAO not telling the TC to notify her when proceedings restarted or the TC failing to do so despite such a request, I don't know. But there clearly appears to have been a failure on the part of one or another agent of the federal government. And we shouldn't blithely accept the federal government violating its word to the report.

Toussaint-Guillaume Picquet de la Motte said...

But then again, we are only hearing the side of the Virginia Pilot. A media source that is reporting about how it was treated by the Navy. My experience as a TC with the media is they want or demand and expect everything to line up to make their job easier. If I was a reporter and told my boss that I didn't get a story because I was waiting for the PAO to notify me I would not be reporting much longer.

Toussaint-Guillaume Picquet de la Motte said...

OBTW, I do believe the military has a responsibility to publish dockets and inform the public/media about cases, etc. At DoJ, there is usually a press release on every indictment (even the boring cases) and then it is up to the media to track the docket. However, if something like this occurs I do not immediately cry conspiracy or cover up. Just a mistake. Mistakes happen.

Dwight Sullivan said...

Count,

I agree with the "mistakes happen" view. (In fact, I used that very phrase in my post.) And I'm not big on conspiracy theories. But I do believe that mistakes are more likely to happen in areas that are not an organizational emphasis and less likely to happen in areas that are an organizational emphasis. And the available empirical data -- including the Tully Center report -- strongly suggest that accessibility of public information simply isn't an area that the Navy JAG Corps cares about. Of course, whether the Navy JAG Corps SHOULD care about it is a matter open to debate. (I'm on affirmative side.)

Anonymous said...

Anon 1334 and Mr. O'Connor reflect a lot of TCs I think. I know as a TC I probably wouldn't return the press's calls, though I might tell my supervisor about them. I also probably wouldn't return the PAO's calls either, having better things to do.

Anonymous said...

Anon 13:34 is right. Too often we in the defense bar put our desire for publicity (and the future business it generates) above our client's desire not to publicize that he ro she is on trial for an alleged crime.

John O'Connor said...

I don't know whether Anon 1354 is right or not. But in this Internet age, getting the client's name in the press can have long-lasting effects when a prospective employer googles his name five yeasrs later all the way across the country.