I’ve been covering the triple-murder trial of Robert Seth Denton. I haven’t covered a criminal court case in several years. I haven’t ridden a bicycle in several years, either. I imagine I could, but not with the immediate ease that I could have when I was (to quote my friends Tyler Colbaugh and Vicki Cooper Trammell) “young, thin and glamorous.”
I felt sort of that way walking into court each day last week. I didn’t know I’d be covering the trial until noon on Monday. They’d already seated the jury and opening statements were set to begin at 1:30 p.m. I grabbed a fresh steno pad and pen from the newsroom supply closet. I checked to see if my cell phone and iPad were charged. And “ding” — a bell went off in my head: to use audio or video equipment or use a camera in the courtroom, you must have prior approval from the judge. It’s called a Rule 30 request. I said loudly to no one in particular, “I’ve got to have a Rule 30 letter!”
No one knew what I was talking about. I knew somewhere on my cluttered, crowded desktop I had a copy of one or more years-old Rule 30 request letters. Becky Campbell, my friend since college, former Times News coworker, and now colleague at our sister newspaper, The Johnson City Press, taught me about the Rule 30 thing years ago. As I looked for an old letter in the “My Documents” folder, I thought I’d probably be calling Becky later in the day to ask for a court jargon refresher course. That premonition came to pass.
I got to the Sullivan County Justice Center in Blountville with about 10 minutes to spare, with my freshly printed Rule 30 request in hand, along with my cell phone and iPad. And was greeted by the large signs (I’ve written articles about) giving notice all cell phones, laptops and tablets are prohibited in the courthouse. I asked the security checkpoint folks what to do, as a member of the press. They said press are allowed to take devices in, but I’d have to show my credentials. Even though they recognized me. Rules are rules. I understood. But I don’t really have “credentials” as far as a badge or laminated ID. I remembered I did just get my little business-type card verifying my employment by the Kingsport Times News and 2019 membership in the Tennessee Press Association. Luckily, it was actually in the console of my car. I ran and got it.
A note on cameras and recording in the courtroom: even when they are permitted, at certain times the judge will instruct the media not to use them. In this week’s trial, that happened when an 11-year-old girl testified. We also are warned not to at any time capture a member of the jury on film. The judge warned us one morning that one outlet had come “dangerously close” to doing so in its coverage the previous day. These things are included in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 30: Media Guidelines.
Courtroom etiquette can include lots of “All rise” and “Be seated.” Every now and then, there’s a “Remain seated.” For this Methodist, it was almost like church — maybe like going to all three Sunday services, back-to-back. Only I seem to have an easier time gracefully “rising” from the pews at First Broad. The spring-action theater-like seats of the courtroom were more of a struggle for this fat boy to quickly “rise” from and stand. Holding a cell phone in one hand and steno pad in the other didn’t help. As for “glamorous,” I discovered one morning I’d somehow, as bald as I am, managed to arrive not just with “bed head,” but with the far worse “CPAP bed head.” That’s when your CPAP mask leaves a distinctive pattern in your hair, including your beard, if you have one like me.
But I made it through the week. I swear I will not be riding a bicycle until this trial is over. But I’ll be back in court Monday, the Lord willing and the snow don’t rise.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]