Russell Williams’ lawyers say courtroom tweets “crude, unnecessary”, lacked context

In an interview with The Ottawa Citizen‘s Chris Cobb, the defence team of convicted rapist and killer Russell Williams blasts journalists for “crude, unnecessary” courtroom tweets.

Cobb writes that lawyers Michael Edelson and Vince Clifford believe “journalists inside the courtroom were being traumatized by lurid images displayed on big screens while simultaneously racing to send comments on Twitter and other instant messaging services.”

“What resulted from time to time was crude, unnecessary, misplaced tweet comments,” Clifford told Cobb.

“With tweeting you have 140 characters so there is very little you can cover,” added Edelson. “You are losing the context and not giving substantive descriptions of what’s going on. And some of what was coming back (from readers) was ‘this is horrible, it’s too much information and we don’t want to hear about this’.”

The coverage was recounted (and explained by journalists) in J-Source‘s “Has coverage of Col. Williams gone too far? Or not far enough?

In a recent interview with Canadian Lawyer magazine, Edelson noted that he has been bombarded with interview requests from American and European journalists. “We have turned down countless requests because it’s not what we do,” he said. “But there are certain lessons that flow from this case for lawyers, judges and the media and we feel pretty strongly about that.”

Canadian Lawyer reports that “Edelson is concerned about the use of electronic devices by reporters in the courtroom to instantly transmit stories and pictures. Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert F. Scott, who presided over the case, permitted reporters to use smartphones and laptops in the courtroom. Media were not permitted to take pictures inside the courtroom, but they were able to instantly transmit unfiltered accounts of the graphic evidence through Twitter and live blogs.”

The lawyers want Canada’s judicial system to create standards and strategies to prevent the inevitable creep of TV cameras into Canadian courtrooms.

“Law societies across the country have to come to grips with whether we need a new series of professional conduct rules to deal with this,” Edelson told Cobb, “and whether judges need some direction in when and how to deal with it.

And tweeting during a case like Williams’, who had already plead guilty, doesn’t carry the same risk as it did during the 2009 peddling trial of former Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien, Edelson points out.

Cobb explains: “Edelson and Clifford successfully defended O’Brien. It was the first Canadian criminal court proceeding where, at the request of the Ottawa Citizen, tweeting was allowed. The Williams hearing was also opened to tweeting at the request of the Ottawa Citizen. Between the two cases, journalists broadcast tweets from a high-profile biker gang trial in London, Ont.”

Court practice is to exclude witnesses from watching other witnesses to prevent evidence tailoring. But live reporting can allow people to “literally follow the trial on Twitter and discover exactly what we are excluding from the courtroom to prevent them from discovering. And I know for a fact they did,” Edelson said. “It was a big issue with O’Brien and it will be a big issue again.”

The pair are conflicted about outright banning instant messages — Clifford says no, but Edelson calls Twitter “rubbish.”

The lawyers are also concerned about the impact uncensored court material has on journalists forced to make on-the-fly decisions.

“During the Williams hearing” Cobb writes, “Edelson and Clifford said they saw some traumatized, exhausted journalists in tears over the images they had seen in the courtroom — images that lawyers for media outlets had asked to be made public.”

Witing for J-Source just after the sentencing, CBC Radio reporter Dave Seglins breaks down the coverage and wonders, was it worth the emotional toll it took on him?

In addition, two second-year Loyalist College j-students (which is in Belleville, where the sentencing was held), Trish Allison and Nicole Kleinsteuber, write about what they learned from covering the sentencing of an admitted rapist and murderer. Lesson one: dealing with guilt.