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Capital Murder Trial Chronicled Via Twitter

Posted May 15, 2008 12:49 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: Trial junkies following the high-profile prosecution of a Wichita man accused in the contract killing of a pregnant 14-year-old girl can get continual, brief updates at Twitter.com from a reporter covering the trial.

Reporter Ron Sylvester is covering the trial of defendant Theodore Burnett for the Wichita Eagle, but he’s also submitting updates to Twitter, described as “a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”

In Sylvester’s case, those reading his Twitter posts are his newspaper readers. His first Twitter message today read simply: “The capital murder trial of Ted Burnett began this morning.” Later, Sylvester described the opening arguments of prosecutor Marc Bennett, who contends Burnett took a mere $500 to kill Chelsea Brooks for Brooks’ older boyfriend, who feared he would be prosecuted for statutory rape.

The Twitter entries are short, no more than 140 characters, but they are frequent. In just the first hour of the trial, Sylvester wrote 20 posts.

Burnett is charged with aggravated kidnapping and capital murder, according to a Wichita Eagle summary of the case. That page also houses the latest Twitter updates as Sylvester posts from the courthouse. The victim's boyfriend, Elgin Robinson, is scheduled to stand trial in September.

Sylvester uses a T-Mobile Dash phone and a Bluetooth foldable keyboard to send his updates to Twitter through text messaging. He always asks for permission before bringing his equipment into a courtroom, and judges are amenable.

“They like my set-up with the phone and keyboard, because it is smaller and less noticeable than a laptop,” he told ABAJournal.com. “Judges who won't let laptops in will let me use this set-up—as long as I keep it on the silent setting. Judges tell me if the phone makes noise, I lose it.”

Sylvester had done some live blogging of a murder trial in November by sending e-mails to his newsroom for posting. But there were delays before posting and Sylvester began to think that Twitter would be quicker.

Sylvester doesn’t know how many people are reading his posts, but he sees new “followers” are reading them every day. One reader told him the frequent posts capture details that traditional reporting doesn’t. “Since I'm sending mini-reports limited to 140 characters, I can often include information that might not go in a traditional story,” he said.

The downside, he says, is that there is no copy desk to catch mistakes. “Whatever I type goes out there live. That's a lot of pressure.”

Some observers suggest Twitter has the ability to report news of major events more quickly than traditional news organizations. News of the recent earthquake in China was reported as it happened on Twitter, Rory Cellan-Jones wrote at the BBC News blog dot.life.

“I was beginning to think Twitter—the micro-blogging service that's all the rage amongst the technorati—was just another fad for people who want to share too much of their rather dull lives,” Cellan-Jones wrote. He changed his mind when he logged onto Twitter and saw the breaking earthquake news.

Sylvester's Twitter posts were particularly successful during the jury selection phase of the case. He intertwined facts about the death penalty in Kansas and quick notes elaborating on the jury selection process. He also captured moments of levity and rapport building between the prosecution, defense lawyers and jurors.

Some examples:

Defense attorney Mark Manna said he had a client once who said "Lawyer stands for Lying AlWaYs with Every Response." That guy is in prison. 11:55 AM May 12, 2008 from txt

Juror who just moved here: "I was in Lawrence and didn't want to live there anymore." Prosecutor: "As a K-State grad I can understand that." 09:57 AM May 06, 2008 from txt

Prosecutor: If you can't listen to both sides, you shouldn't be here. Juror: "I'm ready to go right now!" Even the judge laughed. 09:50 AM May 08, 2008 from txt

Editor's note: Twitter users can follow the ABA Journal's Daily News feeds at http://twitter.com/abajournal.

Story updated at 1:30 p.m. to include comments from Sylvester.

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