Investigating Court Cases

By Megan WannerTop 10 Tips court cases

One of the most important things to remember when investigating criminal or civil cases is to pursue sources and information with a passion to discover the truth.  This may mean constantly asking potential sources for interviews, simply observing outside courtrooms journalists are not allowed inside or finding any documents that might possibly be linked to your story.  Close scrutiny of all information received is pertinent to discover new angles and injustices.

When it comes to investigating civil cases, the court is a great place to search for sources both paper and people.  Paper trails including files attained through the court clerk, lawyers or plaintiffs and defendants themselves are a journalist’s dream, according to Brant Houston in “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.”  All of these people are key sources to an investigation.

This is the type of paper trail the Willamette Week found when investigating former Portland governor Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl while in office:

“Public-records searches identified court documents in Washington County and Seattle that described his sexual abuse of Susan in great detail, without actually naming Goldschmidt.  In late March, WW began to talk to people, eventually speaking with more than a dozen who told a remarkably consistent story about what happened from 1975 through 1978,” wrote Nigel Jaquiss in “The 30-Year Secret.”

From these paper trails, the Willamette Week found more and more people who knew the governor’s secret which lead to another story for its readers based on the statuses of those who knew and their reasons for not revealing the scandal.

It is important when investigating a civil case to check documents against information from sources and against each other.  In the case of the Goldschmidt abuse scandal, reporters used this technique to ensure the accuracy of their facts when it came to determining how long the abuse continued.

“Court documents, both in Seattle and in Washington County, say the sexual abuse occurred from 1975 to 1978.  Goldschmidt, however, says the ‘affair’ lasted less than one year.  WW checked with Jeff Foote, the lawyer who negotiated a settlement with Goldschmidt on Susan’s behalf.  ‘Our records indicated that the abuse started when she was 14 and ended when she was 17,’ he says.  ‘It happened, and it happened over a sustained period of time,’” wrote Nigel Jaquiss in “How Gov. Goldschmidt Aided One Man Who Knew.”

No matter what topic or beat you are assigned to cover, it is important to be on the lookout for another story that could potentially surface.  This is how Willamette Week discovered the beginnings of the scandalous story that unfolded surrounding Goldschmidt and his relations with a 14-year-old girl.

“In February 2004, WW began reporting on Goldschmidt’s consulting firm, Goldschmidt Imeson Carter, and the extraordinary degree of influence it exercised in the gray space between business and politics.  During the reporting, WW kept encountering whispers about Goldschmidt’s past.  Most involved affairs with adult women, but a few sources said there was also a young girl.  In late 1988, he arranged for Susan–who was trying to contact him regularly and speaking with increasing indiscretion about him–to get job in Seattle.  In that city, she suffered a brutal rape and told authorities about her earlier sexual abuse at the hands of a “trusted family friend,” who was 21 years her senior–creating the first public document in which she referred to Goldschmidt’s crime,” wrote Nigel Jaquiss in “The 30-Year Secret.”

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