It was 8:30 in the morning as I pulled up to the Ouachita Parish Courthouse Annex, I was lugging my camera gear out of my KNOE car as a reporter from the newspaper approached as well as a cameraman from the competitor station. I greeted them and asked, “Have you ever covered a grand jury hearing before?” both shook their heads no. I was in the same boat and had no idea what to expect.
We were all gathered there Thursday because the former engineering department head Sinyale Morrison was accused of payroll fraud and after two years of investigations, a grand jury would finally decide if she would be charged with public payroll fraud or just guilty of oversight. I figured a grand jury hearing would last perhaps six hours at most, but I should have known when it comes to court stories, never expect things to go quickly.
What I became aware of from the get go is grand jury hearings differ from court proceedings because the grand jury discussions happen behind closed doors. Meaning, only the 9 jury members and the witnesses were able to hear what was happening. So that leaves the media to sit on a wooden bench and only take note of who is entering and exiting the conference room. The only good thing is that you are allowed to have cameras and cell phones in the hallway, whereas in court rooms you are prohibited. Well, initially the assistant district attorney told us that he expected everything to be wrapped up by the afternoon. But, we all ended up sitting in that long narrow hallway until 8 in the evening … nearly 12 hours from when we arrived.
The assistant D.A. told us it was the longest grand jury hearing he had experienced in his more than 20 year career! Sitting on a bench staring at the wall for much of the day was tough, but the plus side is it was a great chance to hang out with the other media outlets. With two newspaper reporters plus two television reporters and one cameraman, we were all in it together.Sitting in one place for 10 + hours is also a great way to see how others handle the experience of mind-blowing boredom, in this instance many of the journalists handled it with grace, although some not as much. I’ve found every time I cover court stories, there is bound to be hours on end of waiting and I always enjoy getting to know the other journalists that I don’t normally get to confer with.
In fact a few months back, I was covering a hearing about Ouachita Parish’s former sheriff who was facing federal felony charges and unexpectantly the hearing never began. Unbeknownst to us, the federal prosecutors were in back rooms with the ex-sheriff’s attorneys working out a plea deal agreement. But all we were told was the hearing was being delayed. So the print and broadcast journalists sat in a federal courtroom for 8 hours and just bonded. It was a perfect mix of people, which made the experience more bearable. Once we got tired of sitting on the wooden benches we took seats on the floor and chit chatted about our lives, the news, and everything in between. Although the experience in retrospect was just a lot of sitting around, I learned a lot from the journalists who work in outlets different from mine. The moral of the story is, although court days can be long, it provides fantastic bonding opportunities. I just hope as I advance to different markets one day, it’s the same kind of deal.
Oh and in case you were wondering, the grand jury decided after several hours of interviewing witnesses to indict Morrison of payroll fraud. Meaning, I will be sitting in that trial when it happens, hopefully providing another bonding opportunity with my fellow journalists.