1492237405236 - Behind the press bench: A recovering court reporter confesses all

Behind the press bench: A recovering court reporter confesses all

It’s a tremendously sad thing to map the upward trajectory of your career by the articles you’ve written about people who befall sad fates, and the monsters who perpetuate them.  

This week I “retired” from court reporting, a round I’ve held as a journalist at Fairfax Media’s Auckland office for the better part of three years. It’s not a long time by any measure. Some registrars at the High Court have been there for decades. Lawyers and judges, longer. 

Quicker than most, I’ve tired of hearing mad, bad, and sad, things every day – of being incredulous at the not guilty verdicts. Of feeling my heart break for the victims and their families, and being vilified by people who accuse me of intruding on tragedy. 

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I started out in better spirits: The first case I covered was the Maori King’s son Korotangi Paki, who, on a cold July night at the Auckland District Court was discharged without conviction for drink driving, burglary and theft. Judge Philippa Cunningham heard he had to be “whiter than a dove” to accede the throne. The decision was much reviled and later, overturned. 

I watched the arguments being swatted around, closely watched by a horde of media and a packed courtroom including Paki, and his heavily pregnant partner. After all was said and done there was a hum outside the court, a feeling that business had been done. I was hooked. 

The following year, a murder trial. At the High Court in Auckland, a beautiful old building with red brick and a green lawn, Tony Robertson detailed to a hushed courtroom how he stabbed Blessie Gotingco minutes after plucking her from the street. She was metres from her front door. I’d soon learn confessions from killers were not often forthcoming. If they were, they were self serving. They never came in that kind of unflinching, unapologetic detail. Everybody held their breath. 

Since then I’ve covered dozens of murder trials, some quite remarkable: The man who tried to hire a hitman to kill his love rival; two lovers who plotted the death of the woman’s partner, leaving a bizarre trail of incriminating love letters; and a complex undercover police sting that revived a cold case, ending with the killer leading police to two bodies. 

Some victims miraculously survived to tell their story. Just once, I followed a case right from the beginning. I lived around the corner from a woman my age who was stabbed by her ex in his front yard; watched her being carried out wailing by paramedics. I covered the trial.  Afterwards, I interviewed her at length for a story about domestic violence.  

Other cases evoked the kind of sadness that can only be found when people have made terrible judgement calls – gamblers so far in the red they steal from their families and bosses; A pharmacist who prescribed a drug addict too many pills, killing him;  or kids run over in driveways or accidentally drowned in pools. Bad decisions. Painful consequences. 

Whatever the story, each case touched a nerve. I can give a crime tour of Auckland, pointing out the locations of death and suffering. My doors are always locked. My favourite game to pass the time while waiting for someone’s appearance is to remember the names of all the lawyers in the courtroom, and then name the clients they’ve represented. Occasionally I search for victims of crime online, hoping they’re doing OK.  

This week I attempted to itemise every court story I’d ever written; in a vain attempt to shine a light on every case that had meant something to me. I felt as if I was reading my own obituary. Death by a thousand sad stories. I sent out a widespread call to people I figured must have felt the same at some stage. Does it get you down, listening to grisly stuff all day long? I asked.

Defence lawyer Ron Mansfield was quick to respond, acknowledging that dealing with crime is both a “burden and a privilege”. 

Mansfield has an impressive, lengthy list of clients: Kim Dotcom, Rene Naufahu, Tania Shailer, to name a few. In that time -honoured debate between court reporters about who we’d choose to represent us if we were in the clink, Ron was aways my go to. 

“Everyday I am personally affected in some way by the work,” he replied. “I don’t think I can claim to have yet made a success of managing that stress.

“I am sure I would have looked younger and quite handsome, bar for the impact of my job (humour also helps!). Without wanting to attract sympathy, if there can ever be such a thing for a defence lawyer, there are periods of bad sleep, poor health and low mood. Would I do anything else if I had such an opportunity? No. I do feel that it’s all worth it.”

Lady Heeni Phillips-Williams, a formidable lawyer and a wonderful woman, was succinct: “You cannot worry about the tragedy, sadness, poverty, crime, mental illness, violence and so forth before you. Whilst empathy has its place, if you let this negativity take over your mind you could end up a tragic case yourself.” 

Crown prosecutor Scott McColgan sent a cheeky response, before retracting it and replacing it with a lovely tribute to his family, whom he credited for helping keep him sane.

“On rare occasions you walk out of court feeling like having a cry,” he admitted. 

It’s hard to explain the atmosphere of a courtroom to people who’ve never been. Even those who have experienced sitting at press benches have eyed me with amusement and horror as I recount the most thrilling and clinical aspects of my day. It clearly is a niche passion.

I once interviewed the late Sir Peter Williams QC, not long before his death, and shortly after he was knighted for his services to law. I asked him what he remembered most about the courtroom. His reply was nostalgic and one I’ve long remembered: “The big trials, standing and addressing the juries and the packed courtroom and the serenity of the whole environment – the ritual, the oratory, and the passion and the concentration,” he said. 

Court is theatre, but it’s not entertainment. Wry smiles from judges in moments of humorous concessions can be just as thrilling as an outburst from a guarded prisoner. A shake of the head from a juror, quarrelling between a prosecutor and a lawyer, and kids waving to their parents in custody from the back of the courtroom. Affairs admitted, affairs denied, tears shed and death inspected – intimate moments of people’s lives played out in public. What a privilege to watch. 

The silver lining is that the overwrought tensions of a courtroom can also make life’s amusing failures all the more welcome. Like the time a district court judge scowled as a cellphone interrupted proceedings. It was his. The ring tone was the Rolling Stones.

I’ve seen prosecutors spill jugs of water during impassioned speeches, judges fudge defendant’s names, tired security guards and jurors snooze during evidence, registrars snipe about judges, and lawyers mock their clients for being caught on camera mid-offending. 

Aside from improved shorthand, knowing the difference between actus reus and mens rea, and what criteria you’ll need to succeed in a section 106 application, I’ve learned and observed the following: Justice is not black and white. Crimes are filled with subtle nuances that, inappropriate or not, can mean the difference between jail, home detention, or no punishment at all. I was surprised by this at first, and have come to appreciate it second.

I’ve learned judges can be surprisingly sympathetic to personal circumstances, and more often than not strive for the best available outcome not just for victims who need justice, but for offenders who often need help. I’ve learned our justice system is slow, and often alienating. I’ve learned everyone is entitled to a good defence, and I’ve learned to tell when people are lying – they overshare.

I’ve learned that journalists have an important place in the courtroom – though we appear to sit on the sideline, we are the eyes and ears of the public. The mechanism of which our system, routinely acknowledged by judges as one of ‘open justice’, thrives. 

“Good morning, the fourth estate,” lawyers often chirped when a case deserving widespread attention meant the press bench was full on a Monday. I think most of the lawyers understood why we had to be there. I liked to think a smaller selection wanted us to be. 

And so we’ve reached the end. In my early days reporting, I used to observe an elderly woman who would come and sit at the back of the courtroom and watch cases unfold. She was quiet, wore a rain jacket, and often looked like she wanted to speak to the lawyers and reporters who’d burst out the doors of the courtroom the second the morning tea break struck.

I never used to think about who she was, or what brought her there. This week, as I said my silent goodbyes to the High Court, I began to wonder if she was a recovering court reporter. Back for one last hurrah. 

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