Reporter's Notebook: Covering the Haditha Trial

Covering a court martial, such as the trial of Marines accused of killing Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq, poses special challenges for a reporter. Even though these military proceedings are supposed to be public, much of the evidence is hidden from public view.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

For the past few years, NPR's John McChesney has covered military trials. And in this week's Reporter's Notebook, he points out how much of a challenge reporting on those trials can be.

JOHN McCHESNEY: It's an old fable. Six men in a dark room touched different parts of the elephant, trying to figure out what's in the room with them. They are all wrong, of course, trying to surmise the whole from a tusk or a tail. Sometimes reporters covering military legal proceedings feel the same way. I have covered trials concerning war crimes at several military bases in the U.S., and it's always the same.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unclassified documents and photographs are entered into evidence and are repeatedly referred to in court. Sergeant So-and-so, a prosecutor will ask, please look at your statement and reference paragraph eight. Is that your sworn testimony? At this point, reporters are in a blind. Often, there are no verbal quotes from the document in court, just page and paragraph references.

In recent proceedings at Camp Pendleton about the killing of 24 civilians in the Iraqi village of Haditha, photos were handed to witnesses for identification and questioning. But reporters couldn't see them. In most civilian courts, enlargements or projections would be displayed.

Brian Rooney is a lawyer for one of the officers charged in the Haditha case. Like many civilian lawyers handling military cases, he'd like to have these exhibits made public during preliminary hearings and courts-martial.

Mr. BRIAN ROONEY (Attorney; Spokesperson, Thomas More Law Center): It gives a fuller picture of what happened and what the charges are all about, and whether they have a basis in truth or none, especially in this war environment, in this war footing that our country is on now.

McCHESNEY: And in most civilian courts, documents entered into evidence would be available at day's end from court clerks, but not so with the military. So even though courts-martial are supposed to be public proceedings, much of the evidence is hidden from public view. And if reporters want those exhibits or transcripts of legal proceedings, the government says they must request them under the Freedom Of Information Act, or FOIA.

The last time I requested a court martial transcript, it took 16 months to get it.

Mr. MATTHEW FREEDUS (Civilian Lawyer; Former Navy Judge Advocate): And that timeline just isn't consistent with the First Amendment.

McCHESNEY: Matthew Freedus, a former Navy Judge Advocate and now a civilian lawyer handling military cases, says there's only one way to get this vital information into the public record in a timely fashion.

Mr. FREEDUS: In short, a lawsuit could be filed to compel the services to comply with the First Amendment in response to requests for court records.

McCHESNEY: Freedus and others say it's time for major news organizations to band together to ensure that these so-called public proceedings are really public.

SIMON: NPR's John McChesney.

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