Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Let's Make a Deal

It was likely to happen. According to today's Missoulian, Laura Hackney's attorney and prosecutors negotiated a plea bargain as the clock wound down toward her scheduled trial for deliberate homicide. My guess is that neither side was absolutely certain of its case. To win a conviction, prosecutors would have had to prove that Hackney "purposely or knowingly" caused her husband's death. Without witnesses or a confession, their proof would have been circumstantial, meaning they would have to depend on indirect evidence to lead a jury to believe that Hackney intended to kill. Hackney argued that the killing wound was an accident, that she pulled the knife only to fend off her drunken, violent husband. In the end, she agreed to plead guilty to negilgent homicide, meaning she caused her husband's death by "failing to act with reasonable care."

The recommended sentence: 15 years in the Montana State Prison women's facility, with 10 years suspended. Prosecutors said they won't quibble if the judge decides that Hackney should spend that time in a community prerelease center rather than prison.

So what do you think? Was justice done? Are plea bargains good things? As you ponder that, remember that you're responsible for producing a story from your beat this week.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Murder, They Wrote

You have a choice of assignments this week:

1. A story from your beat. (Make it a dandy.)


2. A deadline story from the Laura Lynn Hackney murder trial scheduled to begin Wednesday in Missoula District Court, the honorable Judge John Henson presiding. The action begins at 10 a.m. in the Missoula County Courthouse. Follow the crow to one of the big courtrooms.

As an added incentive -- for this week only -- those of you who cover the murder trial will receive a two-for-one grade, which would allow you to wipe out an earlier grade that you'd rather forget.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Your Assignment: A Civil Action

I strolled down to the Clerk of District Court's office today and got a copy of former UM cheerleader Richard Wiesmann personal injury suit against the University of Montana and Mismo Gymnastics. I also snatched copies of UM's and Mismo's initial response to the complaint. I'll make the documents available to you in class, but here's your mission:

Write a story based on the responses from UM and the gym. You can pretend that you wrote a story weeks ago when the lawsuit itself was filed, but remember to include adequate background in the new piece so readers unfamiliar with the story can see what the fuss is about. We'll talk more about this in class tomorrow. Let set the deadline for 5 p.m. Friday.

Monday, September 19, 2005

This week in Public Affairs

The murder trial scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed, so I'll come up with another Justice Beat assignment by Tuesday afternoon. Check this space Tuesday afternoon for details. (Don't fret. You'll get a chance to cover parts of an actual murder later.)

Meanwhile, be sure to follow the news about Missoula's mayoral race and the City Council election. We'll be moving to the City Beat at the end of next week, and you'll be doing some reporting on the run-up to the November election. For starters, you should read Ginny Merriam's great profiles on mayoral candidates John Engen, Lou Ann Crowley and Geoff Badenouch.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

'So mom wakes up, goes downstairs ...'

The stories we've written so far have been fairly straightforward, but you can use storytelling devices like scene-setting leads and anecdotal leads with crime stories. The key is digging for telling details. Here are links to examples in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Baltimore Sun.

A couple of potential crime features surfaced during our trip to Justice Court Wednesday. How about a story on the guy with the multiple DUIs, who has somehow avoided Montana's new law that makes the third DUI a felony punishable by prison time? You might even save a life on the highways. It would take some digging through his history (see his case file), interviews with prosecutors (for details of earlier convictions and explanations of the law), and perhaps even a chat with Orzech. In the end you'd explain HOW in the world this could have happened, and HOW stories always lend themselves to narrative storytelling.

The second story idea comes from the guy who pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining a nonresident hunting and fishing license. By itself the story might rate a brief, but interviews with Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials (The chief of FWP's license bureau is Henry Worsech, 444-2663) and nonresident students (you know who they are) might indicate how common practice the practice is. The irony of our guy getting caught only because his ma applied for Washington hunting license in his name not only give this story a twist but seems to imply that it's not hard to get a Montana resident license, otherwise. The ex-football player's story would make a perfect anecdotal lead.

And speaking of crime stories, I urge you to read Kaimin contributor Caitlin Copple's great job of reporting on the UM student accused of participating in the beating of ex-UM basketball player Sam Riddle ("UM student pleads not guilty in attack on Riddle"). What made her work so remarkable is that she went beyond the formal charges and police details. She actually talked to an eyewitness who raised doubts about the "official" version of the crime.

Monday, September 12, 2005

This week on the Justice Beat

We'll be reporting in Judge Karen Orzech's Justice Court Wednesday. You'll need to be in the hallway outside the court (third floor, courthouse annex) no later than 2:15. Your mission? Take notes on the day's criminal cases, and pick a felony to cover. (If there are no felonies, pick the newsiest misdemeanor.) I'll get the paperwork (complaints and affadavits) from the clerk and share them with you. Your stories will be due at midnight Wednesday.

Your other assignment for the week is a story from your beat. The deadline for those is no later than 9 a.m. Friday (earlier if you have breaking news or chose to cover a timely event).

Because we'll be covering police and courts for the next couple of weeks, you might want to check out some of the following Web sites for ideas. The Missoula Police Department is putting its daily public reports on the Web these days, and you'll find some basic info on Missoula County's District Courts at the county site. Missoula's U.S. District Court (federal court) has a decent online offering, too.

In other news, I highly recommend Missoulian reporter Ginny Merriam's series last week on Missoula's mayoral candidates. We'll spend October covering the Missoula City Council and the city election, so make that a part of your daily news reading.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Death and deadlines in New Orleans

Fascinating stories are emerging about what it's like to cover the unprecedented disaster in New Orleans. Reporters, some of them veteran war and disaster correspondents, are struggling to control their emotions as they try to capture the devastation and despair and put it into perspective. The frustrations and the dangers involved in getting the story are taking their toll, as well. You'll find the best of these stories on Romenesko, a must-visit site for minute-by-minute twists in the ongoing debate over journalistic standards and behavior.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Full speed to the Justice Beat

By now each of you should have a working idea for your first beat story. After I give you the green light, hit the streets. The story is due no later than 9 a.m. Friday, Sept. 9 -- earlier if your news is especially perishable. Don't get scooped by the competition.

As a class, we'll dive into the Justice Beat next week. Tristan Scott, the Missoulian's brand new justice reporter, will be in class Wednesday with advice for newbie police reporters. Our own Peter Bulger will also chip in about his early experiences covering Campus Security for the Kaimin. We'll spend most of next four weeks on the Justice Beat, and plans include a Sept. 14 field trip to cover a Justice Court session and opportunies to cover one of three impending murder trials. Meanwhile, check out this tip sheet on Covering the Cops.

By the way, the Times-Picayune is doing some amazing reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Also, check out IRE's list of online resources for covering the disaster.