Step 1: Search the Court Docket
Every reporter should begin by searching the court docket for the courthouse they would like to report in. The docket is a calendar of the cases that are awaiting action in a court and is usually displayed on a bulletin board in the courthouse. It may also be posted online. From experience, I would suggest searching through the court's online docket first, and then checking the courthouse docket to 1) learn what the case is about, and 2) confirm that the trial will be held on a specific date. The online calendar lists all cases that are scheduled for court in the following weeks, whereas the docket at the courthouse only displays cases scheduled for the following day. The benefit of courthouse docket, though, is that it briefly states the nature of the case. For example, the docket might say that the case is about a reckless driving incident or the illegal possession of methamphetamine. You can also try speaking with the docket officer about the cases that are scheduled for the week.
Step 2: Learn about the Case
Most of the time, a reporter attending a hearing or a trial will not learn about the background of the case from the hearing or trial itself. Instead, one must use the public computers that are available in the courthouse to learn about the case by looking at its previous court documents. Each case is represented in the court's system and most of the documents from each of its hearings and trials are available within the system, too. I suggest looking at documents from probable cause hearings; at a probable cause hearing, police have to testify that they had good reason to arrest a suspect of a crime. Because of this, probable cause documents will usually reveal more about a case (or at least give you a better picture of what the case is about) than other documents. The courthouse's portal will also list information on the attorney representing the defendant. Take note of this as well, in case you need to contact the attorney in the future.
Step 3: Attend the Hearing/Trial
Most hearings and trials are open to the public. There are many kinds of hearings, for example motion and preliminary hearings, and they usually last no more than 10 or 15 minutes. It is normal for the same judge to preside over several consecutive hearings, and it is fine for you to leave and enter the hearing at any time. Trials usually begin in the morning and last for several hours. As with hearings, the public is usually allowed to observe and leave trials as they wish. Taking notes at hearings and trials is generally accepted.
Although I didn't learn a substantial amount of new information about eyewitness ID this week , I was particularly interested in a press release Google Alerts e-mailed me. This release was about ongoing eyewitness research at University of Adelaide's School of Psychology. According to these researchers, there is a difference between the accuracy of objective versus subjective testimonies. Through a laboratory experiment, these researchers found that objective judgments, such as the distance of a witness from the crime or the duration of the crime, are less prone to memory distortion than subjective judgments. In fact, a graduate student on the team, Adella Bhaskara, said that "distance estimates are the strongest part of [the partcipants'] recollections."
I hope to be able to take a closer look at this research, because it seems to contradict what Wells and Quinlivan (2009) said in their critique of the Manson reliability test. According to Wells and Quinlivan, suggestive procedures can actually lead witnesses' to overestimate their ability to view the perpetrator and perhaps underestimate the distance between them and the crime.
Hopefully you found this "mini guide" on reporting on court hearings and trials useful; may it spawn many success stories of courthouse reporting to come.. :D
Wells, G. L., & Quinlivan, D. S. (2009). Suggestive eyewitness identification procedures and the Supreme Court’s reliability test in light of eyewitness science: 30 years later. Law and Human Behavior, 33, 1-24.