"In Session" TV crew puts Haq trial on national stage
The program that popularized live trial coverage revisits Seattle for the first time since the 2003 sentencing of the Green River killer.
Seattle Times staff reporter
For six weeks they've been here every day. Starting at sunrise, leaving only to grab a soda or take a hurried bathroom break. Settling onto hard courtroom benches, they've heard every word of testimony and witnessed every objection and motion in Naveed Haq's trial.
They're not jurors. They're covering them.
They're allowed where local TV stations are not. The crew of television's "In Session," previously known as Court TV, has seen more than the jury. And because of them, the rest of the country has a front-row seat at one of King County's most high-profile criminal cases in years.
As the jury deliberates the fate of Haq, accused of the 2006 shootings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the people behind the "In Session" program — a cameraman on his feet six hours a day, the producer and the "booker" of interviews often glued to their cellphones, the expertly coifed and legally savvy correspondent — wait to bring the end of the story to their fans.
It's one of the few times the phenomenon, which boasts the slogan "Not Reality. Actuality," has broadcast a Seattle trial. It was most recently in Seattle to film the 2003 sentencing of Green River killer Gary L. Ridgway.
"Often we just look for a good story," said Tim Sullivan, "In Session" senior vice president. "Our people, like any journalists, get excited about a good story, even if it's a tragic story." He also noted national interest in the July 28, 2006, shootings.
The cable network that broadcasts "In Session," called truTV, originally became a hit with viewers during the O.J. Simpson trial and first popularized live trial coverage.
The jury has deliberated five days in the current case, in which Haq, a Tri-Cities man with a history of mental illness, is accused of bursting into the Belltown offices of the Jewish Federation and shooting six women, killing one.
The effort it takes to travel to courtrooms around the country — all with different systems, bureaucracy, facilities and attitudes toward television crews — is phenomenal, Sullivan said.
The program, which airs 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time, has five field producers, five researchers or "trial trackers," four anchors, three correspondents, two satellite trucks, an assignment desk in Washington, D.C., and a slew of associate producers — including three working on the Haq case.
The team has been granted the only in-court video-camera spot, pushing local TV stations to copy or "daisy chain" clips from a remote media room. The camera crew was best suited to act as the camera pool for all TV media, according to court representatives.
The network has about 100 people working to cover one or more live trials at any given time, Sullivan said.
"It's a finely tuned machine. This is what we do. It's like the Golf Channel doing golf," he said.
The coverage, which rotates among some of the most high-profile criminal and civil cases in the country, never gets boring, senior correspondent Beth Karas said at a break during the weeks of Haq testimony.
Karas, a feisty former New York City assistant district attorney, has covered the trials of former "Baretta" star Robert Blake, basketball's Kobe Bryant, Martha Stewart and Scott Peterson.
Defying the stereotype of the sensational, tabloid-style reality show — and departing from the image of the prime-time, alter-ego programming, filled with police car chases and riots gone wild — many of the "In Session" staff are former attorneys.
"They're exceptional," said Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, a recent guest. "They know what they're talking about, they research everything. It's anything but sensational. They never spin it. They have well-informed guests. It's the antithesis of The National Enquirer."
In recent weeks the program has covered the Texas polygamy-raid case and the rancorous divorce trial of former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey.
In addition to legal intellect, the show brings a little bit of Hollywood-style personality to Seattle. Willowy, sun-kissed correspondent Jennifer London, a former NBC national correspondent working out of Los Angeles, seemed to catch jurors' eyes as they passed by her while filing into the jury room. Jurors may recognize some of "In Session's" faces, but they are not allowed to discuss or take in any media coverage of the Haq case.
TruTV, renamed from Court TV at the end of 2007, was founded in 1991 and led by Steven Brill, who started magazine powerhouses Brill's Content and American Lawyer. It features daytime trials and legal news and a prime-time menu of crime-related "reality" shows like "Cops" and "Hollywood Justice."
In King County, Court TV filmed the hearings of former grade-school teacher and confessed child rapist Mary K. Letourneau, and the 1996 trial of three teens accused of pushing another teen to his death from a railroad trestle.
Though not as popular as the Michael Jackson molestation trial, the Haq trial has generated lots of viewer interest, Sullivan said.
"I guess it's the nature of the crime, with Haq having got these people in a Jewish community center — a very sensitive, political and incendiary issue, especially since 9/11," he said.
"Also, the insanity defense always generates a certain interest, because it's actually pretty rare that someone is found to be not guilty by reason of insanity."
Next week it's off to Boston for the murder trial of Neil Entwistle, accused of shooting to death his wife and 9-month-old daughter, Sullivan said.
In the meantime, the "In Session" team waits in Seattle, cracking Sudoku puzzles and manning their phones, as Haq's jury ponders.
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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