After a day covering cases in Floyd County Circuit Court recently, a family member of a defendant who deputies led away to begin a prison sentence stopped me and demanded to know “what gives you the right to write about this case?  It is none of your business!”

I tried to explain that what happens in a criminal court is public record and that, as a newspaperman, it is my job report the news.

“You like doing stories like this,” said said.  “I bet it gets you off.”

It doesn’t.  When a trusted local government employee steals taxpayer funds, it hurts to report on a breach of public confidence. When a man goes to prison after too many years addicted to drugs and leaves with deputies to begin a prison term while his wife and daughter cries in the courtroom, I watch in sadness at the forces that tore another family apart.

I’d rather be courtside at a high school basketball game photographing athletes or at the Floyd Country Store filming the Friday Night Jamboree.  When Wanda Combs of The Floyd Press asked me to start covering Circuit Court on every other Tuesday a dozen years ago after Amy and I moved to Floyd in 1964, I expected writing about a smattering of small crimes like what I saw while doing the same thing covering the the then-once or twice a month meeting of the court in 1964 while working for the paper as a high school student.

I did not expect the methamphetamine epidemic that afflicts so many Floyd Countians now or the rash of sexual molestations of underage girls that come through the court on a regular basis along with thefts, aggravated battery and murder.

Circuit Court now hears cases every Tuesday, four or five times a month.  The New River Valley Jail in Dublin may hold more than 100 inmates from Floyd County in a month.  When the jail was built not that long ago, the estimate of prisoners from this county was a dozen

In Floyd County over the past few years, the former manager of Farm Credit went to prison for child pornography, along with his son.  A popular chef and restaurateur lost her business and admitted guilt for diverting taxes to business expenses in an embezzlement scheme. A former teacher and assistant softball coach is a registered sexual offender after an affair with an underage Floyd County High School student.  A former employee of our town library sits in jail right now awaiting sentencing for conviction for abduction, aggressive assault and strangulation of a county woman.

Drug cases dominate most dockets of the Circuit Court and Judge Marc Long meets behind closed doors monthly to try and help first-time offenders with his ‘Drug Court.”

A county grandfather admitted sexually molesting his granddaughter and tried to excuse his actions by telling the judge that “I guess I just loved her too much.”  A middle-aged man said long-term rapes of his underage stepdaughter was “love, not rape.” A husband arrested for battering his wife said “she just got on my nerves.”  A woman convicted for abusing use of prescription pain drugs said she took the drugs “to help me cope with life.”  Another woman who embezzled money from her employer said she “had to do it” because “I’m a compulsive shopper” on online stores.

Floyd County is not alone in seeing such things.  I saw, and wrote about, horrific crimes during my time as a newsman in Roanoke, Illinois and Washington for a half century.

It does not give me pleasure to write about such things but it is part of what I do and I have done it for more than 50 years.  I won my first writing award in 1967 for a story about a 16-year-old Roanoke High School girl who obtained a then-illegal abortion.  The Virginia Press Association citation called the story “a touching account of the pain the young woman suffered.”

It hurt to write the story.  It hurt to report the young girl — whose name was not used — could no longer have children because the abortionist botched his job.

It hurt on September 11, 2011, when I photographed the death and carnage from the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon in the wave of terrorist attacks that also brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York.  A colleague shot his photos while tears streamed down his face.

I have covered conflicts, corruption, crimes and consequences around this country and the world.

I had hoped to get away from such things after moving back to Floyd in 2004 but a phone call from an assignment editor had me grabbing my cameras and heading to Blacksburg to record the killing of 32 by a Virginia Tech student on April 16, 2007.

Pain, sadly, closes in on all of us and anyone who thinks I get any pleasure from reporting the problems of those who must be judged in a court of law does not know or understand what, or why, I do what I do.

On Saturday, I will set up my video cameras at the Floyd Country Store to capture the monthly Floyd Radio Show.  The crowd will laugh, applaud and enjoy the show.  So will I. It is also what I do.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Doug, on the flip slide of it, it makes us angry and causes us to shake our head in disbelief to see some of the same things done by various parties, individuals and our world, done over and over again, just labeled or re-named as something else.

  2. Honest, accurate, routine coverage of criminal justice is a vital public interest function of the news media in service to democracy. Everyone who covers such news finds it difficult, and journalists aren’t the only ones emotionally impacted — Officers of the court and law enforcement are also deeply moved in these situations. Their struggle to keep us all safe would not be understood without the news media. As we often tell students in journalism school, imagine a country where these things are all kept secret — secret arrests, secret trials, secret deaths. Now imagine trying to call it a democracy.

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