In the past year, millions of Americans have demanded an end to state violence against Black and other marginalized people. In the fight against brutal policing, mass incarceration, and other forms of institutional racism, the court system has remained in the background—as an important, if less visible, part of the problem. Criminal charges are exceedingly rare among cases involving a fatal police shooting or excessive use of force; when a family seeks damages, the proceedings tend to be handled quietly—unless a reporter places attention there. In a profile, Jaeah Lee spotlights Nate Gartrell, a courts reporter for the East Bay Times who pushes himself to the brink in order to surface every possible story. His editor views him as something between “a unicorn” and “a maniac,” a “paper-of-record reporter with Daily Mail instincts.”
Gartrell is indeed a rarity, as the country’s local press has been eroded over the past decade and, in some places, annihilated. “Without reporters regularly showing up at local courts,” Lee finds, the judicial system has turned into “a kind of black hole.” In the Bay Area, where Gartrell lives and works, “the consequences of thin reporting are dire,” Lee writes. “The outwardly progressive politics of cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley belie a reality complicated by a growing housing crisis, a widening wealth gap, and a criminal justice system that targets Black and Latinx communities at a disproportionate rate.” Qiana Washington, a former public defender, tells Lee that a person’s fate following arrest often depends less on the crime itself than on outside factors—anything from a defense attorney’s experience to the implicit bias of a judge. When court reporting foregrounds the prosecution and police, Washington adds, it can skew the public’s perception of guilt and innocence. Gartrell has a crucial role to play.
––Betsy Morais, managing editor
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