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From the Publisher: Sitting Courtside

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Published May 29, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Liam Elder-Connors of Vermont Public and Derek Brouwer of Seven Days - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Liam Elder-Connors of Vermont Public and Derek Brouwer of Seven Days

In September 2022, when she was wanted for robbing and assaulting a man in a wheelchair who had just withdrawn cash from a Burlington ATM, Ashley Richards got plenty of media attention. Local TV stations WCAX and NBC5 both covered the violent crime.

Nineteen months later, a jury showed up for her trial, but Richards, the defendant, didn't. The police were dispatched to find her — phoneless, living in a tent on Maple Street — and bring her to the Judge Edward J. Costello Courthouse a few blocks away on Cherry Street.

No television cameras captured the chaos that day — just two reporters: Seven Days' Derek Brouwer and his counterpart at Vermont Public, Liam Elder-Connors. Earlier this month the duo teamed up and spent a week at the state courthouse, witnessing the roadblocks that slow the wheels of Vermont justice. Over the course of five days, the two journalists observed the effects of no-shows, technical problems, scheduling screwups and defendants in opioid withdrawal. Richards' case, one of several they followed, checked almost every one of those boxes.

Their shared experience confirmed: "The state's judiciary remains mired in a pandemic-era backlog that has seen the number of unresolved criminal cases swell to 15,000, double the pre-pandemic norm," as Brouwer and Elder-Connors write in this week's cover story, "Trials & Tribulations." "More cases have languished, leaving the accused in limbo while frustrating victims who must wait months — or years — for their shot at justice."

Even when the court system is functioning properly, reporting on it is not a one-person job. Things are unfolding in two or three courtrooms simultaneously while "a lot of the little dramas play out in the hallways, in the clerk's office and down by the security desk," Derek explained. Much of the plea dealmaking goes on behind closed doors. Schedules often change at the last minute.

In short, it's not a tidy episode of "Law & Order."

Today's courts are burdened with all the social struggles on public display in our cities: homelessness, addiction, mental illness, poverty. Derek and Liam knew it would take more than a single scene, anecdote or legal case to accurately illustrate the impact of those challenges on the criminal justice system and the people trapped within it, so they spent each day chasing as many narratives as they could. The assignment required patience, empathy and expertise in the subject area; both write about public safety on their respective beats.

To the extent that the media covers the courts at all, it's typically quick hits of arraignments and perp walks on the evening news. In this project, Derek and Liam sought to show what our beleaguered justice system looks and sounds like.

"There were dozens and dozens of hearings over the course of the week that we saw," Derek explained. "We looked for patterns. If you're there, watching people's lives unfold, you're going to encounter moments that are moving and interactions that are important and illuminating."

Another motivation for the collaboration: Derek and Liam, who are friends, enjoy working with and learning from each other. News gathering in two mediums — print and radio — exposes them to different forms of storytelling. Ironically, Liam writes copy faster than Derek. And Derek captured the audio for one of Liam's two radio stories that will air this week on Vermont Public.

"I don't know that either of us could have done it on our own," Liam said. "We got a lot for our effort."

It's not the first time the two writers have combined forces: In 2021, they chronicled code violations and unsafe living conditions in a joint investigation of landlords Mark and Rick Bove.

In 2019, Derek was on the team of Seven Days and then-Vermont Public Radio reporters who delivered "Worse for Care," exposing the state's shoddy record of inspecting eldercare homes. The series won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and Liam and Derek followed up on eldercare issues during the pandemic.

Traditionally, news outlets don't collaborate because the business is so competitive. But when it works, as these partnerships have, the result is a deeper understanding of what is really happening in our community.

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