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BOOK REVIEW: The Court Reporter by Jamelle Wells

| 17 August 2018 | 1 Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Court Reporter by Jamelle Wells

ABC Books
February 2018
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories / True Crime

9/10

For the majority of us who don’t work in jobs related to the criminal justice system or who haven’t chosen to become court watchers in our spare time, courtrooms can seem like an alien and impenetrable place. Jamelle Wells’ memoir, The Court Reporter looks set to change all that. This senior court reporter has had a distinguished career in the media and has worked on the court round at the ABC filing reports for various mediums for the past decade. She draws on her rich experiences here and the result is an eye-opening and frank look at the NSW justice system.

A courtroom presents life in all its complexities and it can provide the most amazing and addictive theatre. The case itself is often a subplot for all the dynamics and relationships in a public gallery.
I wrote this book to fulfil my promise to my mum and it is dedicated to her memory. I hope that you find the courts and all the colourful stories and characters as interesting to read about as I did to witness.

Wells grew up in the small town of Cobar in western NSW. She first cut her teeth in the media and arts while working in radio for stations like 2CH and 2GB and penning theatre reviews. She eventually went to work at the ABC but it was in 2008 when a vacancy opened up in the courts round that proved the most life-changing:

The court round was perceived in the ABC newsroom as a hard one with content difficult to master and with long hours. I applied for it thinking it would probably go to someone who had been in the newsroom a lot longer than me.
I got the job.
I was shell-shocked and apprehensive. Where would I find stories? Which court would I go to each day?
After getting over the initial fear of just how much there was to cover in this round, it unexpectedly appealed to my love of journalism but also theatre, in a way that I had never imagined it would.
No one can really tell you everything you need to know to do the job, it’s a case of learning as you go, which I was about to find out.

It is fascinating to read Wells’ insights about life on the job as a courtroom journalist. Her descriptions are so honest and detailed that there are times when you feel like you are sitting there in the public gallery with her. In her work, Wells has to summarise quite complex legalese and turn it into straightforward and accessible prose, so it should come as no surprise that her book also manages to do the same.

Robert Xie was sitting directly opposite me. He stared straight ahead during the judge’s sentencing remarks. I was face-to-face with a convicted murderer in a navy suit who looked straight through me.
He didn’t blink, didn’t flinch and didn’t cry, just stared. It was as though he had mentally put himself somewhere else to get through this ordeal. I wondered if he was meditating. Reporters next to me tweeted that his stare was disconcerting and that it was evil. I stared straight back at him trying to work him out and he made no effort to move or look down or turn away.
He didn’t seem angry. He did none of the things I have seen people do when they are sentenced.

Another interesting part of this book is when you discover that a lot of these journalists have had to learn most things on the job. Wells herself admits to having had no formal legal training with the exception of the little she received as a journalist. This can prove quite challenging in a world where there are suppression orders governing what can be published and that mistakes in reporting can land a journalist in contempt of court.

As I started the court round I was constantly aware that even a small mistake about a trial could breach a suppression order so for the first few weeks I did what every new court reporter does: I followed the other court reporters around…
They knew where the media were allowed to sit and when was the best time to approach the bar table to ask questions of prosecutors and defence lawyers. They knew who the friendly and approachable lawyers and prosecutors were and which ones were tougher nuts to crack or who would never give a journalist the time of day. The court reporters also seemed to have strong opinions when talking to each other about the decisions juries and judges had made. They had their favourite judges and the judges who they complained about. Most importantly they had all been through the terror of being new at the job themselves and they were incredibly helpful.

The environment that comes with this kind of work can be a tricky one to navigate. Wells doesn’t hold anything back in telling us that she has been spat on, threatened, chased, and stalked and all while in the line of duty. These things are appalling but perhaps the most shocking is when you read Wells’ thoughts and assessments about the offenders and accused persons she has encountered over the years.

I have always considered it a privilege to be allowed to sit through court cases because I am privy to the most intimate details of people’s lives. Reporters in a court are the eyes and ears of the general public who are not there, and that comes with a responsibility to be fair and accurate.
After being on a round for a while, I would go out or even be on public transport and strangers would come up to me and start asking about cases they had seen or heard me covering…
I’m sure people are constantly disappointed when I tell them most of the offenders I sit with in court are not deranged freakish Charles Manson lookalikes. They usually look like someone you could meet in a café or see walking down the street. Some are professionals. They have friends and family and have lived lives that have been, in part, quite normal and routine. That, to me, makes them all the more scary.

In this memoir, Wells is an incredibly articulate and compassionate narrator. She describes some of the biggest cases she has covered like those involving ICAC; the Lin family murders; the Sydney siege inquest; and the case involving former federal court judge, Marcus Einfeld, who lied to the police in order to evade a speeding fine. In some parts, Wells brings a sense of detachment that is required to provide a balanced report about the case at hand, while at other moments she delivers a more personal and conversational tone that allows her opinions to shine through. The latter is evident in the following quote where she writes about John Walsh who brutally murdered his wife, two grandchildren and the family dog.

As I held my ABC microphone up near Shelly Walsh’s face outside court after her father’s sentence I thought about how her world had been taken away from her. Her mother and her children were gone. And her own father had tried to kill her too. Even though he was now going to stay in jail, had she had any real victory?
That’s the thing about punishment for a crime. No murder sentence, even if it is jail for life, will take away the loss and suffering for the family and friends of a victim.

The Court Reporter is an important insider’s look at the NSW court system. It provides a real fly-on-the-wall account from a seasoned senior reporter with stories ranging from the serious and devastating cases involving murderers and sex offenders through to the colourful and ridiculous tales involving other notorious and/or strange cases. Wells finds the right balance between describing the processes and the things the public ought to know, as well as other anecdotes and bits that we can all learn from and be entertained by. It seems that there is no ordinary day in the life of a court reporter and Jamelle Wells is the perfect narrator to lead us through the long and winding road that marks the pursuit of justice. Riveting stuff.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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