Many people cringe at the thought of having to go to court. It is particularly unsavory for anyone who must face the court to answer charges.
That was not the case for my journalism class today. We went to court to cover a case for an assignment. It was a pretty heavy case – or would have been – dealing with sexual assault on a child which is a pretty difficult thing to have to cover and write about. But this was not to be. The Crown decided to not present evidence. This is not quite the same thing as withdrawing charges but it is a way to tell the judge that the Crown has decided not to pursue the case. So the judge acquitted the accused and he was free to go in a matter of minutes. A publication ban prohibits disclosure of the name of the accused to protect the identity of the child.
But that is not the story.
The class left the courtroom feeling a little disappointed that the assignment was delayed. We would have to find time at the very busy end of a very busy semester, to cover another case. We probably will find time; we usually do…somehow.
But as we congregated outside the courthouse to head back to the college, our instructor, Jeff Ducharme, asked a daring question. He felt us out about asking to speak with the judge, not specifically about the case, but about the interaction of the judicial system and the media. We agreed and Jeff went off to see if he could glean a few minutes of the judge’s time for us.
Moments later we were back in the courtroom sitting face to face with The Honourable Judge Jacqueline Jenkins. She was still dressed in her robes of black, white and red, and she sat at the bench looking down at the class. I might note, I’ve never know the class to be so absolutely quiet before.
Jeff asked the first question of Her Honour, explaining that in all of his experience covering court, he’s often heard the Crown withdraw charges, but had never heard a decision to present no evidence. What does this mean. Her explanation, as paraphrased above, was a gemstone of information.
Our instructor then asked the Judge about her feelings concerning the relationship between the judicial system and Jenkins’ face lit up with a smile. It was one of those smiles that hinted that she was probably going to be to the point.
And she was.
Judge Jenkins told us that it is very important for the media to cover the courts with best possible accuracy and to avoid words that might tend to colour – or discolour – the facts.
She explained that one word can invoke serious ramifications for a case. She gave us an example of a case that was really about a fight between two people; there was a winner and a loser. But a witness had described the incident as a ‘beating’. The word ‘beating’ became the buzzword of the case in the media, which lead to national coverage. But as the judge pointed out, using the word ‘beating’ out of context of the witness’ testimony, skewed the facts. Just because the witness described the event as a beating should not change the fact that it was really just a fight. In the public eye it did modify fact.
Her Honour also took the time to share her thoughts on her role as a judge and how important compassion is to her. She feels that it is important for her to take everything into account about a case, apply the rules of law and include compassion when making her decisions. She told us that people often arrive at the brink of a personal crisis in their lives and sometimes they do go over the edge. Not necessarily to an extreme, but they find themselves confronted with the law, having done something they normally would not do. Jenkins said that she makes every effort to consider the personal situation of the person in each case – to see the human side of the situation – and use whatever discretion is lawfully at her disposal to arrive at a fair decision.
There were several questions and answers, but what I have described pretty much reflects the morning we had with Judge Jenkins. I feel honoured to have been granted the time she gave so generously to the class, and I feel that all the second-year journalism students share with me the need to extend sincere thanks to Judge Jenkins for an enlightening and informative day in court.