News reporter's notebook

Inside the Tsarnaev courthouse

There are few things worth waking up early for each morning, but a so-called trial of the century is certainly one. On the first day of IAP, the trial of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began.

I was a freshman when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred two years ago, and I remember the shock when we heard first about the explosion, then the loss of Officer Sean Collier. Those events were in chilling contrast to that year’s Campus Preview Weekend — which had just taken place — with MIT’s newly-admitted students bubbling over with excitement and reminding us why we chose MIT.

In November, The Tech’s news department received an email from Ginny Hurley, the Outreach/Training Coordinator for the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts, inviting us to a media informational meeting in preparation for the trial. I was floored.

Doubtful that we’d receive a seat next to big names like The New York Times and ABC News, however, we almost didn’t RSVP. But we decided to give it a shot, classes be damned.

There, we learned that we needed to apply for media passes if we wanted to bring our electronics into the courthouse. I laughed nervously when I saw that the form asked for some of my most recent reporting assignments — err, dorm changes? Math contest winners? New lab being built? Suddenly my articles didn’t seem so interesting anymore.

After having our self-esteem thoroughly beaten down by the forms, we turned them in at the court clerk’s office only to be told that we needed a cover letter to accompany them. The cover letter was supposed to be from a news director verifying that all of the applicants were actually staff members. Hmm.

I wasn’t too keen on making another trip just to turn in a typed cover letter, so I whipped out a sheet of paper and started hastily crafting a handwritten cover letter. Maybe they’d think that we handwrote the letter to make it more personal, rather than because we were out of options.

As much as our media pass applications screamed “novice,” they somehow got approved and we received the passes the next week. Even if we didn’t get a courtroom seat, I comforted myself with the thought that at least I had a spiffy (albeit cheaply made) card to show my grandkid.

We heard from Hurley again the first day of our finals week after we formally applied for a seat.

“Only limited seating is available in the courtroom, and it is simply impossible to accommodate everyone who is interested in observing the proceedings there,” Hurley’s email began. I braced myself for a rejection.

“For the purposes of seating arrangements, we have deemed The MIT Tech and The Suffolk Voice affiliated organizations to provide both groups with a seat in courtroom #9.”

I couldn’t believe it. If ever there was imposter syndrome, this was it. MIT doesn’t even offer a journalism major! I thought to myself.

Like all good things, though, it came with a catch.

“As you can imagine, we have a waiting list for these full time seats,” Hurley’s email continued. “A court security officer and/or a member of the court staff will be at the courtroom door each day to check in the members of the press. If we find that your seat is unused for a period of time (to be determined), we will need to reassign that seat to another news outlet on our waiting list.”

So both of our papers were going to have to fill the seat 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. four days a week for a couple of months or risk losing our seat? Sounded like a logistical nightmare — this brought extracurricular commitment to a whole new level. We decided to play it by ear and form a team within our department to rotate staff through the seat. We would give it our best, and, well, if worse came to worst, we would lose our seat.

And that is how, on the first day of one of the biggest US court cases of the century thus far, a small group of us ventured our way down to the John J. Moakley Courthouse near the Boston Harbor. Over winter break, we had pored over everything related to the trial, from other news media coverage to court lingo and journalism guides. We even created Twitter accounts the day before so that we could tweet live updates during the trial. That morning, three other Tech reporters — Drew Bent, Ray Wang, and William Navarre — and I woke up bright and early and headed out.

We met up at the Kendall T stop around 7 a.m., ate a quick breakfast at South Station, and walked over. The first clue of the media frenzy we were about to dive into presented itself to us a street away from the courthouse, where we saw several media vans parked. Outside the courthouse, an army of video cameras were trained at a lone mic in front of the entrance.

Surprisingly, only a single protester had shown up. With our media badges, going through security was thankfully simple. One person from our team sat in the allotted media space and the rest of us filed into an “overflow courtroom” to which that morning’s jury selection would be broadcast live. (Or the half hour that was open to the media, anyway.)

Many of the reporters arrived earlier than we had and were already in the overflow room, so we hurriedly took seats. Two large TV screens were set up in the room to stream Judge George O’Toole’s opening remarks.

A few minutes later, one of my ABC News heroes, Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross, walked in. My jaw dropped. I grew up watching ABC World News, and knew all of the regular anchors. I Googled him to make sure he was who I thought he was, and then proceeded to (not so surreptitiously) shoot him glances for the next half hour in case he disappeared at any moment.

I resolved to approach him after O’Toole finished his remarks so that I could ask for his autograph — carpe diem, after all.

There were a few technical difficulties, but the screens eventually connected to the cameramen in the jury assembly hall. We had a good view of the front of the hall, where the prosecution team, the judge, and the defense team would sit.

I posted my very first tweet as we waited for the judge — “Jury selection for the US vs. Tsarnaev trial beginning late this morning #Tsarnaev.” (I also learned my first lesson on the site — no editing tweets, no matter how mortifying the typo.)

The wait was well worth it, though, as Tsarnaev himself walked into view soon afterwards. Some murmurs of surprise went around the journalists in the room.

He kept a short beard, and wore khakis and a dark sweater. It was a bit surreal to see him there and realize that there would never be a photograph of what we were seeing — only courtroom sketches. In some ways, I suspect a ban on all photography and video recording made me appreciate the scene even more. He fidgeted quite a bit, especially when compared to his lawyers who sat almost completely still.

O’Toole proceeded to go through some history of the jury selection, invoking the American spirit and recalling the tyranny of King George III. He encouraged the potential jurors to do their service well if chosen, and then read aloud instructions for filling out a questionnaire that would whittle down the pool. At the end, he introduced the federal prosecution team and Tsarnaev’s defense team. Each person stood up, although Tsarnaev seemed hesitant at first to do so. Afterward, the screen went to black as the media window came to an end.

That was my cue to muster up the nerve to approach Ross. I took out a sheet of paper and pen, and tentatively approached. He was exceedingly gracious. His autograph: “To Kath, welcome to the world of journalism! Brian Ross.” (Of course, I scanned it in for posterity as soon as I got back to my dorm and sent it to my parents, who also watched ABC News with me when I was growing up.)

When we left the courtroom, a few reporters approached us when word got out that we were from MIT. Before we knew it, we were swarmed. While they were all quite nice, let’s just say it was extremely odd to be on the receiving end of an interview for once.

And that is how I ended up on BuzzFeed later that afternoon. Life goal of an almost twenty-something? Accomplished.

On the T ride back, I reflected on what I had said during some of the interviews. Why were we, a ragtag group of students, committing to cover this trial first-hand? Sure, it was the chance to cover a solemn and significant trial. But it was more than that as well — it was the chance to give back to the MIT community, and to serve a public still remembering those who were taken too soon.

Melissa Enos over 7 years ago

Well done. I look forward to reading the MIT articles!

Anonymous over 7 years ago

"It was a bit surreal to see him there and realize that there would never be a photograph of what we were seeing only courtroom sketches." Best line of the story.

Kyle Murray over 7 years ago

Great article! You and your fellow Tech reporters deserve to be there, and I hope you can manage to keep your seats and keep reporting.