Tweeting in court new journalistic frontier

Columbia County News-Times reporter Valerie Rowell tweeted from the Columbia County Courthouse during the murder trial of Thomas Eugene Bradford.

Richmond County Superior Court judges are taking a more benign approach to reporters using Twitter in their courtrooms than many of their colleagues across the country.


Twitter and other social media use by journalists was banned, for instance, in the pending Chicago trial of a man charged with killing singer Jennifer Hudson’s family. Cook County Judge Charles Burns told the media that it would be a distraction to jurors and take away from the dignity of the court.

In Augusta, however, judges polled on their opinion about Twitter agreed that it was simply the latest technology advancement and should be accommodated.

“It’s just the times we live in,” Superior Court Judge Carl Brown said.

David Hudson, the attorney for The Augusta Chronicle and general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, said there’s little precedent in Georgia on using Twitter in court. In general, though, its usage falls under Rule 22 of Uniform Superior Court Rules of Georgia, he said. A Rule 22 request signed by a judge allows the media to set up cameras – video and still – in the courtroom and record the proceedings.

“It’s up to the judge to make the decision,” Hudson said.

Valerie Rowell, a staff writer for the Columbia County News-Times, used Twitter to keep the public updated during three high-profile trials, including the murder trial of 15-year-old Lacy Aaron Schmidt. At each of the weeklong trials, Rowell estimated, she sent out 400 to 500 tweets.

There was little opposition from the judges, Rowell said, and the response from the public was tremendous.

“They really like to keep track of what’s going on without being in the courtroom,” she said.

Although the rules are still being written, there are already examples of what can go wrong with allowing devices such as smartphones into court. A mistrial was declared in Kansas this month after a Topeka Capital-Journal reporter tweeted a photo that included the profile of a juror.

The newspaper said it was a mistake and apologized for the court’s wasted time.

Questions also arise about the use of smartphones by jurors. A death row inmate’s murder conviction was thrown out last year by the Arkansas Supreme Court after a juror tweeted during trial and another slept.

The juror, Randy Franco, tweeted such things as his opinion of the coffee, but also “it’s all over” less than an hour before a verdict was announced.

Locally, Superior Court Judge Michael Annis regularly announces before a trial that he’s OK with jurors keeping their cellphones in their pockets.

They are instructed not to discuss the case before a verdict, but Annis said jurors without access to the outside world are not focused on the evidence but worrying about picking up their kids or an unfinished task at work.

“They have 1,001 issues on their mind that one phone call can tend to,” Annis said.

Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet doesn’t see much point in banning the most current means of distributing information.

“It’ll probably be something different next year,” he said.

Reports from The Asso­ciated Press were used in this article.



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