The first time Toni Locy covered a trial as a young journalist, she didn’t know the difference between a plaintiff and a defendant.
Now, after 25 years reporting on the American justice system at all levels for some of the nation's biggest and best news outlets, she has written one of the few textbooks on covering courts. It is aimed at journalism students as well as reporters who are new to legal reporting, providing them with the foundation they need to write accurate, fair, clear and compelling stories for mass audiences.
Locy is the Donald W. Reynolds Professor of Legal Reporting at Washington and Lee University's department of journalism and mass communications, and her new textbook is "Covering America's Courts: A Clash of Rights" (Peter Lang, Feb. 2013).
"I wish someone had introduced me to the principles of legal reporting before I ever stepped foot inside a courtroom," said Locy. "It would have made things a lot easier. There are basics that journalists should know when covering any legal proceeding, and what they need to know about the law is different from what lawyers need to know."
Some books have been published on legal reporting but were written for professional journalists assigned to the beat rather than for journalism students. Few professors teach a course on legal reporting and that may be due to the lack of a textbook to date. "It's hard to build a course from scratch with no textbook. I know, because I've done it at Washington and Lee," said Locy. "So I hope this book will provide a framework to help professors create a course."
Locy's book is based on her approach to the subject in her W&L classes in which she uses examples from her experiences as a reporter. She wrote the book with her Washington and Lee journalism students in mind and acknowledged that they helped form the book through the questions they asked in class.
Locy has reported for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, USA Today and the Associated Press. She covered the 9/11 attacks and was one of three reporters to break the first published story in the Washington Post about the independent counsel's investigation into President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. She was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for a series she wrote for the Boston Globe about the Boston Police Department's inability to solve serious crimes.
But it was her time at USA Today that thrust Locy into the national spotlight.
In 2008, she refused to comply with a federal judge's order to reveal the identities of confidential sources who had provided information she used in reporting on the FBI’s investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people.
A U.S. Army scientist, Dr. Steven Hatfill, was called a "person of interest" by then-attorney general John Ashcroft but Hatfill was never charged.
"I didn’t like the term 'person of interest' because it's so vague and highly negative," recalled Locy. "I looked it up in the U.S. Attorney's Manual and couldn’t find it because it's not a legal term. If you name someone as a target of a grand jury investigation, there are certain things that kick into gear that prosecutors are supposed to do. So 'person of interest' is a squishy term designed to circumvent those rules."
Hatfill sued the government and claimed he needed the identities of reporters’ sources to prove that government officials had leaked information about him in violation of the Federal Privacy Act. When Locy refused, the judge held her in civil contempt of court.
The judge, Reggie B. Walton, imposed fines on Locy that escalated to $5,000 a day over a three-week period. He also banned anyone—family, friends and her former employer—from helping her pay the fines. A federal appellate court granted Locy’s request to stay the fines pending her appeal. The U.S. Justice Department eventually settled Hatfill’s lawsuit, and Walton vacated the contempt order against Locy. The National Press Club awarded her the John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award because she protected her sources.
Locy devotes a chapter in her book to the importance of protecting sources, with a sidebar about her experiences in the Hatfill case. "I have no regrets about the Hatfill case whatsoever," said Locy. "I know I did the right thing, and I would do it again. If you're going to develop sources, then you need to be prepared to protect those sources if a federal judge is yelling at you to reveal their names. If you make a promise to a source and don’t keep that promise, you hurt everyone else who comes after you. I know, because that happened to me. Reporters who had gotten into that kind of trouble before me made concessions that I was then forced to make, and that hurts the profession."
The first section of the book introduces students to the courts and identifies the key players and their roles in the courtroom — police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and reporters. Locy then takes the reader through the entire process from the 911 call, the investigation, the indictment and the pretrial stage to a trial which could end in a plea agreement. If a case goes to trial, Locy walks the reader through testimony, deliberations and sentencing for both criminal and civil litigation.
Another section explains how to find and interpret key documents.
Locy also discusses the challenges of covering high profile trials and how they can become sensationalized if reporters don’t know enough about how things are supposed to work.
According to Locy, American history is full of such high profile cases, going back to the Boston massacre, when British Army soldiers killed five civilian men in 1770, and Samuel Adams, a columnist at the time, attacked the jury's verdict. Then there was the 1954 case of Dr. Sam Sheppard in Cleveland. Sheppard was found guilty of murdering his pregnant wife but was later acquitted in a retrial. More recently, the O.J Simpson trial was, in Locy's words, "a year and a half of national drama played out on cable television.
"These sensational trials are covered like sporting events, and although you can't get away from that completely, if you know about legal procedures and how things are supposed to work, then you'll be able to recognize when they aren't working and be able to explain why," she said. "Right now, I don’t think we have enough reporters in that category."
Another concern Locy addresses in the book is secrecy in the courts, pointing out that it has increased considerably since she began her career in 1981. At that time, the war on drugs was raging, and prosecutors would regularly ask federal judges to seal entire cases to protect drug snitches, arguing that they would be killed if their partners in crime found out that they were cooperating.
Locy recalled one case she covered in Philadelphia where a federal judge claimed in an interview with her that the FBI had lied to him. The FBI wanted a snitch to cooperate so badly that agents agreed to let him keep a million dollars of his drug profits, only they didn’t inform the judge of that part of the plea agreement. "This guy played the FBI for years," said Locy, "and never gave them any real information about the mobsters he had dealt with."
She said another example of when secrecy can be abused is in product liability cases when people don't know about previous incidents. Also, according to Locy, some people have been arrested, indicted, tried and sentenced in secret.
"That's why having reporters in the courtroom is essential to keep tabs on what's going on and look into the real reasons for secrecy," she said. "If you don’t shine some light on what the government is doing, then you create the opportunity for people to try and hide their mistakes."
Another issue Locy covers in her textbook is anonymous juries. While she acknowledges the importance of protecting jurors from tampering and intimidation (in 1988 she covered the Mafia trial of Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo in Philadelphia), she is concerned that anonymous juries have increased and are now occurring in white-collar crime cases.
"Of all the players in the criminal justice system, jurors probably have the most carte blanche," she explained. "Where people are that powerful, someone needs to evaluate who these people are and whether they have an axe to grind or any ties that they didn’t disclose during the jury selection process. If you don't know their names, then it's impossible to evaluate if they lied to get on the jury for whatever reason. There have been cases where that happened, and sometimes nobody realizes it until after the fact. Anonymous juries hamper reporters from doing their job as a check on the system. I think that's problematic."
While Locy has been described as "one of the most gifted, tenacious court reporters," she has no regrets about leaving the profession. "I promised myself early on that I wouldn’t become an old lady reporter because I believe that journalism is a young person's game," she said. "At some point, I transitioned from being a reporter who was being mentored to becoming a mentor myself, and I liked that role. I haven't looked back because I enjoy teaching, and this book is a way for me to contribute to journalism by training future reporters."
Locy received two of W&L’s Summer Lenfest Grants that enabled her to travel to Colorado and Washington, D.C., to talk with judges and other officials about cases and gather information. "It was a comfort to know that I had the financial and moral support that the Lenfest Grants provide, and I'm very grateful," she said.
Locy received her B.S. in journalism from West Virginia University and her M.S. in the Studies of Law from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation is a national philanthropic organization founded in 1954 by the late media entrepreneur for whom it is named.
"Covering America's Courts: A Clash of Rights" is available at the University Store and through its website at http://bookstore.wlu.edu