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A trial 140 characters at a time

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

You don't have to be at the Bonnie Craig murder trial--the dramatic cold case--nor do you have to wait until the story airs on the evening news or a reporter files a story online, or even for someone to drop a newspaper at your door, to get all the details from the courtroom proceedings.

Nor do you have to wonder what's being left out, what's being filtered through the mind of a journalist.

You can get all the information, immediately as it happens, to peruse at your will, if you have a Twitter account and you follow one reporter's ongoing tweets.

KTVA television reporter Grace Jang is telling the dramatic story of the alleged murder of Bonnie Craig 140 characters at a time. She's tweeting the story of the trial of Kenneth Dion, who is accused of raping and murdering Craig--a bright-eyed 18-year-old University of Alaska student--in 1994.

Craig's ravished body was found floating in McHugh Creek and the murder shocked Alaskans. Posters were plastered all across Anchorage looking for clues as to what happened to her. Her face appeared on television countless times. Story after story was written about her, and her possible killer, still at large. Then came a breakthrough in 2007, when investigators linked DNA evidence from Dion's semen to Craig.

Dion claims that he had sex with Craig but that he didn't kill her.

If you just happened across Jang's Twitter profile today, you'd probably be a little confused at the multitude of tweets about the murder trial--the same way you would be confused if you jumped in the middle of a large, rowdy, raucous conversation, where everybody is talking about different things. Twitter is the cocktail party meets tower of Babel meets language poetry, online. The genius of it--and what keeps it from lapsing into complete anarchy--is that 140 character limit. That's basically the only rule, which you might think would limit Twitter's storytelling capacity. But it doesn't have to if your fingers are quick enough, and Jang's seem to be quite nimble.

But then again, you have to know how to read it, how to put something like this into context:

GraceJangKTVA Defense: Let's talk about night you leave. You have no idea what she told her parents to go to your house. She hid her bike and snuck in

GraceJangKTVA: Defense: Never saw Bonnie other than at school except one night a weekend because your mom was strict. C: yes

GraceJangKTVA: Defense: so Saturday nights were sex nights? C: sure.

Those tweets were from a snippet of time in Thursday's dramatic testimony involving Cameron Miyasaki, Craig's boyfriend at the time of the death. You can see how, if you just came across any of those particular tweets, they might be startling.

At least a few of Jang's earlier tweets seemed so, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack Smith informed Jang last week. He had a problem with two specific tweets Jang sent out at the start of the trial. One of her tweets, which has since been deleted, was about the defendant showing up in the courtroom wearing handcuffs. Another was a description of a juror that could, in Smith’s estimation, have made it possible to identify that juror.

He told Jang not to tweet about these things in the future.

Smith favors keeping an open court, he said in an interview about social media in the courtroom. The judge has no problem with tweeting the case as long as it doesn’t disrupt the proceedings, he said.

"I'm not a Twitterer, but to me, it's similar to any other reporting mechanism," Smith said.

He did say, however, that it was probably wrong of him to order her not to tweet about whether or not the defendant was in handcuffs because he didn’t put that condition on other media. He said he would probably talk to her and clear that up. However, he’s sticking to prohibition of her describing the juror. The rules are clear about what they can and cannot say about jurors.

Number one rule: Jurors are not to be identified.

Smith's reaction here was reasonable. Not all judges might be that reasonable, particularly judges who don't understand social media. That's proven true across the country. And because social networking is so new, reactions to social media in the courtroom have been anything but uniform.

Barbara Hood, communications counsel with the Alaska Court System, said that Alaska should probably update its court media rules. "We are in the process of looking at that," she said, and noted that Alaska has allowed cameras in its state courtrooms for more than 20 years--longer than most states.

"Alaska supports openness in its courts," Hood said. She believes that philosophy will eventually extend to social media.

"Courts struggle to some extent on how to deal with these new media forms," said Eric P. Robinson, deputy director of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Courts and Media at the University of Nevada, Reno. "Part of the problem is that the law hasn’t caught up with technology."

Federal courts are much more restrictive about broadcasting from the courtroom, and some federal judges have ruled that twittering is like a live broadcast.State courts have more leeway. But still, some judges are ruling against tweeting in the courtroom, if nothing else because of the distraction, and the potential to taint the trial. A Connecticut man found guilty of murder in a high-profile, highly tweeted case is appealing on those grounds. And such rules are even being applied to jurors and to defendants. In a trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the judge ordered that the former governor couldn't tweet in the courtroom, for instance.

Perhaps more controversial, at least in the world of media criticism, is whether Twitter is the best venue to tell the long, nuanced story of a trial. At least one lawyer thinks not. In an online legal site, defense lawyer Norm Pattis wrote: "The isolated facts tweeted from a courtroom are part reporting, part marketing. But reporting isolated facts has little value. Indeed, the practice carries the danger of distraction."

Jang said that she likes tweeting from the courtroom and believes that she's providing the public a valuable service. "A growing number of people are getting news exclusively off Twitter. They like the immediate access to instant information Twitter provides." And, she adds, you can do a lot more with Twitter than you can in a 90-second broadcast, or even in a 500-word story, both of which she must produce for KTVA's evening news and website. Three different ways to tell a story, with three distinct emotional pitches.

Here's a part of her news story on Thursday:

"It's my understanding you were unaware that Bonnie had exchanged phone numbers with another gentleman and had repeatedly been calling him, asking him to go out," said Andrew Lambert, the defense attorney of Kenneth Dion, who's accused of raping and killing Craig. "Bonnie failed to tell you about the three men she was playing pool with until the wee hours of the morning."

Compare that to this:

GraceJangKTVA: Defense: you know long distance relationships can be difficult. C: Yes.

GraceJangKTVA: Defense: u were unaware the week B died she had exchanged phone numbers with another guys, played pool with guys late into night

It goes on, in bits of a story in that strange, monotonous Twitter voice. Stenography meets reporter meets online chaos.

But that's not where Jang stops. After the tweeting is done, she writes a story for KTVA.com, presumably before "fronting" a live broadcast from the courthouse that's followed by a prepared television segment packaged at the station featuring Miyasaki's earlier testimony as he struggled unsuccessfully to hold back his tears, saying he loved Bonnie Craig. It’s a dramatic, wrenching moment, one that captured so much of the tragedy and heartbreak surrounding the trial.

Here's a tweet from the same testimony:

GraceJangKTVA: DA: we'll skip to graduation. What was your relationship then? C: we were very serious, very much in love

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com