Twitter Trials: The Ottawa Citizen and Russell Williams sentencing hearing

Case Study by Christina Pellegrini

The accused man’s guilty plea pierced the packed Hastings County courtroom, located two hours east of Toronto in Belleville. Everyone knew it was coming. Defence lawyer Michael Edelson had told the court 11 days earlier that his client, David “Russell” Williams, 47, wouldn’t contest the 88 criminal charges pitted against him. Still, hearing a decorated colonel, a former pilot for the prime minister and British royalty, and the former commanding officer of Canada’s top military base, 8Wing/CFB Trenton, admit to heinous crimes was startling.

It was 10:09 a.m. on Monday, October 18, 2010, more than five hours since 27-year-old crime reporter Meghan Hurley had arrived at the Ontario Superior Court to cover the four-day plea and sentencing hearing for the Ottawa Citizen. Now, typing furiously on her HP Probook, Hurley tweeted from her personal account, @meghan_hurley: “He said ‘guilty your honour.’”

By 10:44 a.m., Williams became one of the few people in the country’s judicial history to plead guilty to more than one count of first-degree murder. Each plea was documented in Hurley’s tweets: the first-degree murders of air force flight attendant Corporal Marie-France Comeau, 38, of Brighton and Jessica Lloyd, 27, of Belleville;  two counts of sexual assault; a pair of forcible confinement charges; and 82 break, enter and thefts at  homes in the suburbs of Orleans and Tweed, Ontario.

Then, crown attorney Lee Burgess, in issuing a warning the lurid evidence he was about to introduce in a lengthy agreed statement of facts, said: “Given the seriousness of charges, it’s important for the court to have a full account of the facts. These facts will be extremely disturbing.” Police investigators had amassed hours of disturbing videotape and thousands of photographic proof of Williams’s crimes, a stash of meticulous records the military man kept of his sordid sexual deviancies, rapes and slayings.

Members of the local, national and international press braced to hear the worst.

Four days earlier, Justice Robert Scott had issued a rare court order that overruled a ban on electronic devices in the courtroom, permitting accredited journalists to send text reports on their cell phones and laptops to transcribe, describe and explain. Hurley, the Citizen’s tweeter-in-chief who’s been at the paper for roughly a year, was among a herd of reporters who had raced to tweet and blog live updates from their seats. They offered the public a combination of real-time transcription, description and explanation.

Hurley had live-tweeted from crimes scenes and police press conferences before, but this was the first time she’d done so in a courtroom.

She was a member of the newspaper’s eight-person team that drove the two-hour route to Bellevile: senior writer Chris Cobb, reporter Ian MacLeod, columnist Kelly Egan, city editor Peter Robb, photojournalist Julie Oliver, videographer Scott Parker, and the Postmedia wire service’s Toronto correspondent Linda Nguyen. Their tweets, articles, photos and videos would soon appear across the Postmedia Network chain in a dozen or so Canadian newspapers and on their websites. Forced to rely on her editorial judgment without editors to vet and fact-check her tweets, Hurley says she wasn’t anxious or nervous or too worried about how she would emotionally cope. “It was an honour for me to work shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best journalists in this country,” she said. “I was very excited to be a part of that.”

Still, Twitter in the courtroom was new territory for Hurley and the other journalists, one that would spur countless ethical dilemmas over the four-day plea and hearing rooted in what to tweet and what not to tweet.

By 4:32 p.m., Hurley had published more than 180 tweets, with roughly one-third containing the searchable hashtag #ColRW. So far, the court had heard about each of Williams’ break-ins and seen photos of the loot of underwear, lingerie, and even children’s underwear and clothes he’d wear, masturbate in and steal. And while the last five hours had been disturbing, things were about to get worse. The crown finished the day’s proceedings by reading six pages of the agreed statement of facts pertaining to counts 73 and 74: Williams’ first sexual assault, which had occurred in Tweed at 1 a.m. on September 17, 2009. The crown’s Burgess started reading the charges:

“Counts 73 and 74 – September 17, 2009 – Sexual assault on Jane Doe, Forcible confinement of Jane Doe. Background: 125. As of September 17th, 2009, Ms. Jane Doe was 20 years old and lived at XXXXX Rd., Tweed, with her boyfriend Mr. XXXX and her then 8 week old daughter. Her boyfriend worked out of town during the week, and she was therefore usually alone with her baby during the week. They had only lived at this residence for a short time. 126. Prior to September 17th, 2009, Ms. Jane Doe had never met Russell Williams.…”

Burgess would speak for the next 17 minutes. “We had no idea what kind of information was coming next,” Hurley said, “and you have a split second to hit tweet or delete.”

How much of the detail was she willing to share? How much should or could she post on Twitter? Should she just transcribe what was being said and seen, or mute and censor the repugnant evidence? Or, not report it at all?

Next: Courting Twitter

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