A young man walked out of a West Tennessee courtroom on the morning of September 23, 2017. In a matter of three minutes, Zach Adams learned that, barring a legal reprieve, he will never again walk a step as a free man.
For a family, friends and community acquaintances, six and a half years of waiting are over. Twelve days of draining testimony, deliberation and sentencing are at an end.
For reporters, videographers, digital still photographers, producers and assorted support personnel, the job was not altogether over but—-after two weeks of grueling and exhausting activity—-the finish line was near.
Many of the journalists reporting for television stations across Tennessee were under the age of 30. For some, this was their first experience covering a high-profile murder trial with regional and even some national interest. In that group were some who had never reported on a case in which a defendant’s life was on the line.
The abduction of Holly Bobo, a 20-year-old nursing student at University of Tennessee-Martin, in April 2011 did not suggest a good ending. Within days, more than a thousand people gathered in the small Decatur County, Tn., town of Parsons as an impromptu search party. They combed woods, garages, back roads and even church yards in the hopes of finding her alive. Their hopes were not realized.
Reporters in Memphis, Nashville, Jackson and even hosts of some of the national cable crime shows did their own investigations. Most of the stories were speculations, what-ifs, or maybes. For nearly three and a half years, the Holly Bobo case appeared to be a mystery that may never be solved.
I was in my Union University Jackson 24-7 control room on a Monday night in September 2014 awaiting the appearance of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director Mark Guin. Three minutes after he assumed the podium, Guin delivered the news everyone feared. The remains of Holly Bobo had been found. A distinctively audible gasp was heard in the media room.
Eventually, six men were arrested in connection with the Bobo tragedy. Four—-Zach Adams, his brother Dylan, Shayne Austin and Jason Autry—were all charged with multiple counts of kidnapping, rape and/or murder. Austin took his own life in a hotel room in Florida before facing a jury.
For the Bobo family, the discovery of remains was only the first step toward closure. Three and a half years of grief and hoping against hope for a miracle were over. The next step would be to endure the testimony of a painful and emotional trial.
I knew that for reporters and videographers and their associates, that trial may well be the biggest story of their young careers. Those days in court would not be the biggest in the respect of career-altering stories, but in the demands to be right and maintain balance—-because more people would probably be watching their reports with intense interest than any they had previously delivered.
Some viewers who have a lemon juice view of journalists frequently go to the attack during a trial. I know. I covered 16 murder or violent crime trials during my years in the newsroom. Sensational, melodramatic, or biased are among the kindest words I heard from critics. One newspaper columnist in a city where I was a broadcast reporter chose to rip me about my use of the word “landmark” in stories on a 1977 that was the first of its kind in our state. He perceived my use of the word as part of my “trademark sensationalism.”
Part of the reason I used the word “landmark” was simple. The case was the first in which cameras were allowed in the courtroom in Georgia. Judge John Land, once profiled in a national magazine as “The Hanging Judge,” also enjoyed the limelight. He was more than pleased to receive the publicity for being a pioneer in allowing broadcast journalists to use the tools of their trade. Shortly before the final day of that trial, the judge stepped back to ask reporters how everything was going. Said Judge Land: “I guess I better get ready to go into the studio.”
Fast forward 40 years. Reporters from throughout the state of Tennessee and some from neighboring areas watched and told stories over 12 days of testimony that was often nauseating to hear. Virtually every station and Law Newz Network were streaming the trial live. None of those reporters had a frame of reference to the transformation of 1977 when a Sony TK-76 camera manned by Lee Davis provided pool coverage to a group of reporters taking VTR meter times outside a courtroom for the first time. Their tools of today are commonplace.
I watched outstanding work from some brilliant young journalists who faced the pressures of delivering Facebook and Twitter updates as well as their own live or streaming reports. Chris Conte of WTVF in Nashville offered an easy-to-understand description of what the options were for sentencing after Adams’ conviction. The day after the sentencing, Conte was right back in the air reporting on the tragic mass shooting at a Church of Christ in Antioch, Tn. Bridget Chapman of WREG in Memphis provided straightforward reports without unnecessarily charged or melodramatic words. Our own crime reporter from The Jackson Sun, Maranda Faris, and her colleague Kenny Cummings were on their A-game. Maranda was clicking Twitter snippets seemingly every 40 seconds. Kenny’s still photography captured the essence of emotion in the exhausting dozen days.
In every trial, you have selected moments of testimony that provide choice soundbites. None measured up to sentencing day when Karen Bobo, mother of the young victim, looked Adams squarely in the eye and said, “I know my daughter begged for her life, because she loved and enjoyed life….but you took it from her….and you have shown absolutely no remorse for anything you’ve done.” Without a doubt, I knew that would be the signature moment that would stand out from 12 days in a small Mid-South county. Indeed, those words were repeated over and over Saturday evening and Sunday on the state’s television newscasts.
An intangible to covering trials is they are often physically and mentally draining. Hour after hour of testimony, some technical in nature and others emotional, can wear down even the most youthful reporter’s stamina. In the Adams trial, listening to repeated graphic descriptions of individual perceptions of what happened the day of her death can take a toll of absorption. Without doubt, some of the media needed a second and third wind to revive their concentration skills.
In my days as a news director, I recognized three types of stories that would make me vulnerable to losing personnel. One is a major weather disaster. In 1984, I lost five reporters in four months to bigger outlets than Wilmington, N.C., because their work was seen during Hurricane Diana. Another is a man-made disaster. I lost two more top-level journalists in 1986 after their coverage of a 78,000-acre fire over a period of 10 days. The third type of story is a high-profile trial. The skill required to summarize hours of testimony into digestible reports and communicate that information in non-legalese to viewers is not everyone’s talent. I saw several examples of quality work during the Adams case that would be attractive to news directors in larger markets.
My students and I followed this case for its entirety for our Jackson 24-7 daily cable newscast. At times, millennials can be indifferent to complex stories. In the case of the Adams trial, I watched as my student reporters and anchors were captivated by specific moments of testimony. Equally, I was heartened by the numbers of questions they asked to better understand the legal process. They even learned a lesson that is not in a textbook. When Thursday’s closing arguments, which we were carrying live, ran over into our regular noon news time, we did not go on but stayed with the trial. We even had to cancel two second-half interview segments. As I told them, “When you are following a live continuing story that you know will irritate viewers if you step away from it, you stay with that story.”
One of the other lessons I tried to impart in my role as The Old TV News Coach was one of heart and restraint. I told more than one of my students that in a trial, a defendant may be more obviously guilty than knowing algae is in pond water turned green. Yet, one has to keep emotions or language from in any way becoming a reporter-determined verdict rather than a jury-determined decision. Likewise, I told them you always need to remember that the family of a victim is likely having hearts broken again over hearing painful stories dredged up of what caused their loved one’s death. I added this: if they are kind enough to consent to an interview after a trial, be sensitive with how you ask questions. If they do not want to talk because to do so would be too difficult, respect that.
The Adams trial took me back in more ways than one to those four days in Muscogee County Superior Court 40 years ago. In that case, a lovely and much-beloved church choir director who had what was describe as perfect pitch, was senselessly kidnapped from her home while doing laundry in her parents’ utility room. She was in her twenties. She was engaged. The future of life was promising. Jeannine Galloway was raped and murdered. The community who knew her reacted in much the same way as the disbelief over Holly Bobo’s fate. A young man named William Anthony Brooks was convicted and sentenced to die.
Nine years later, the judicial landscape changed in West Georgia. In a new trial, Brooks was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. One of my closest friends in journalism, columnist Richard Hyatt, has written multiple times of the dissatisfaction with the new verdict, particularly when details emerged of what happened in the original trial:
It came at a time the innocence of a community was being destroyed.
Brooks was sentenced to die and no one winced. He was not a good person. Like the members of that jury, most people believed he deserved execution.
Brooks, a man in his sixties, is still in jail in North Georgia. He comes up for parole every few years but so far has been denied.
Zach Adams could have faced the death penalty last weekend. Saturday morning, Judge Creed McGinley announced an agreement between the prosecution and defense, the Bobo family and Adams. He would be sentenced to life without parole plus 50 years for the rape and kidnapping charges.
When that decision was made, my mind drifted back to Jeannine Galloway and her parents Earl and Hettie, both of whom I personally knew and who have passed away. I wondered if some legal technicality will someday lead to a new trial for Adams and all of the old testimony will be smoked out yet again.
Just as we did 40 years ago, reporters covering the Zach Adams trial were blazing new ground. They were using technological tools we never even dreamed of in 1977. They can report instantaneously as testimony merits. They can let the audience into the courtroom because of a little development called streaming.
They covered a murder trial that was in many ways larger than life. I just hope they all recognize this: that trial and any other they cover in the future will never be larger than death.