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News + PoliticsImmigrationThe Chron's coverage of drugs and Honduras gets into the courtroom—and trouble

The Chron’s coverage of drugs and Honduras gets into the courtroom—and trouble

Reporters talk to jurors during trial; public defender seeking a new trial. The dangerous media narrative remains.

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UPDATED: This story has been updated to correct an inaccuracy about which Chronicle reporter was involved in the jury contacts.

There are so many problems with the Chronicle’s coverage of the drug crisis in the Tenderloin—and the focus on people from Honduras—that it’s hard to know where to start.

The New York Post used it to attack sanctuary city programs. Latino community leaders have pushed back. People who study the issues say the stories “fueled xenophobia.”

The office of Public Defender Mano Raju is seeking a new trial in a case of Chron reporters talking to jurors

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has used the series to push her agenda of arresting and locking in jail people who sell drugs, or even use drugs. In the first three cases that went to trial, juries agreed with the Public Defender’s Office that the people selling on the streets were in fact victims themselves, forced into the work by traffickers.

But the Chron remains adamant that its reporting was fair and unbiased, and is doubling down with its coverage of the one trial where a jury sided with the prosecution.

In the process, though, one of the paper’s reporters did something that I was told from my first days in this profession is considered unethical—and in this case, might lead to a new trial.

Gabrielle Lurie spoke to members of the jury during the trial, before the panel had gone into deliberations.

I served on a criminal jury this summer. The judge admonished all of us, and everyone in the courtroom, multiple times every day that jurors should talk to nobody about the case, and nobody should try to get jurors to talk about the case, until we rendered a verdict.

Lawyers know it’s serious misconduct to have any contact at all with jurors.

“When we came back from a lunch break, we were told that [a Chron reporter] was talking to a juror,” Deputy Public Defender Kelly Wells told me. “It turns out she had talked to seven others. The judge, Simon Frankel, said to them that it’s highly inappropriate to talk to jurors.”

The judge then asked the panel if any of them felt the contact would taint their ability to fairly consider the facts of the case. They all said no.

And maybe that’s true. In a lot of cases, this might not be that big a deal (although it would still be a journalistic mistake).

But if any jurors had been following the Chron’s coverage of the issue, and realized the paper would be reporting on this verdict, I can imagine them wondering: If we acquit this guy, will it wind up in the paper?

That’s the danger here, Wells told me: The very fact that the city’s largest newspaper, which has been pushing hard for Hondurans in the drug trade to be locked up, is interested in the outcome could be enough to taint their deliberations.

Lurie, Wells said, was also admonished by the bailiff for attempting to record the proceedings, which (while I disagree) is almost never allowed in local courtrooms.

Wells sent me the following statement from the PD’s Office:

We were shocked at the reporter’s callousness and audacious behavior, both in disrupting the proceedings themselves and in contacting sitting jurors on an open case. Student journalists cutting their teeth at their college papers know better than that, and these are two highly experienced reporters at a major paper. This was nothing short of a deliberate effort to let the jurors know that the media was watching them, and to get the story they wanted by literally influencing the outcome of the case.

We are now filing a motion for a new trial, and are investigating how the reporters’ improper contact impacted deliberations.

I contacted Megan Cassidy, the lead reporter on the story and the series, and asked if she wanted to talk. She said she would talk to her editors and let me know. That’s the last I heard.

In the first version of the article, there was no mention of the juror contact issue. After the PD’s Office sent the Chron a statement, a later update said:

Public defender Eden Schwartz criticized a Chronicle journalist for asking some of the jurors during a lunch break if they would be interested in being interviewed about the case after the trial. After the lunch break, the judge polled the jurors and asked them if having talked to the journalist would interfere with their ability to render a verdict and they all said no.

The trial then continued and the jurors later reached the unanimous verdict.

“Our office is also concerned that the jury in this case may have been tainted by the fact that a Chronicle reporter spoke to multiple jurors before the jury had deliberated,” Schwartz said in a statement. “Our office is considering its options for this case given these circumstances.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a prominent industry legal group, says journalists should not interview jurors “while the case is being presented and during jury deliberations.

No apology. No discussion of whether this violated Chronicle policy (if such a thing exists).

It’s not easy to get from a small town in Honduras to San Francisco. Making that trek costs money, and many folks who are fleeing poverty and violence have none.

It’s very common for traffickers to pay the thousands of dollars for human smuggling—and then force the folks whose lives were ruined in part by US policies to pay them back from forced labor.

The larger issue here is the Chron’s insistence that there’s nothing wrong with stories that lead right-wing anti-immigrant folks to suggest that people from South and Central America are the cause of the nation’s opioid crisis.

That, it seems to me, might include the Sackler family.

But the Chron is so determined to push its position (and let’s be honest; the paper wants to win a Pulitzer Prize for this shit), that it allows ethical violations (and by the way, published the name of the person who accused some very nasty folks of forcing him into the drug trade, which is potentially life-threatening) in the name of a war on drugs that has not only failed but destroyed thousands of lives in the past 40 years.

Meanwhile, the paper continues to push a media narrative that is now all over Fox News: That “sanctuary cities” allow uncontrolled drug sales, that immigrants are drug dealers, and that locking up and deporting people will solve the problem.

That’s really dangerous.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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