World of Words: Crime writing in a small town

Justine Davidson has been the Whitehorse Star court reporter for three years. Recently I moderated her presentation at the Yukon Mystery Lounge. Below are highlights of the lively discussion.

Jessica Simon (JS): How did you get into court reporting?

Justine Davidson (JD): It’s the beat that’s often given to the most junior reporter because most people don’t like it. I end up reporting on things people would rather no one ever talked about again.

Also, in a small community, I could do this beat for another year before somebody’s going to be on my curling team. That’s already happened, walking into the Roadhouse Inn after a trial and seeing the whole jury there decompressing.

JS: What sources of information do you rely on?

JD: Martin’s Criminal Code is my best friend. It has an offence grid, everything.

I go to all the trials. [Court reporting] is about developing relationships with the defence lawyers, prosecution, court staff, registry staff, sheriffs, police and people who are involved.

Going to the trials is an excellent experience to get a sense of what it would be like to be in a police interview room, because you see the personalities of the police, you see the personalities of the witnesses. With a little bit of imagination you can take two witnesses and see how that conversation would happen.

JS: What are the legalities of writing true crime?

JD: One thing is you have to obey the law. If the person is the victim of a sexual assault their name is protected, as is their identity. A witness to a sex crime or a violent crime who is under the age of 18 cannot be identified. If it is an offender under the age of 18, they can only be identified in circumstances where it’s to protect the public. That’ll be made very clear by the courts.

Saying “The victim was a 41-year-old woman from Ross River” would identify her. In sexual assault, when you identify the perpetrator, you identify the victim. The majority of sex crimes are perpetrated by a friend or family member. In such a small community it’s obvious.

JS: What ethics would you suggest for people writing crime fiction based on truth?

JD: Your first thing would be to consider, “Why do we protect the names of sexual assault victims, young witnesses of violent crime, of young offenders?” We protect the first two because we don’t want them to be further victimized. The third case, young offenders, is that they still have so much potential in their lives.

Make sure that you don’t end up identifying someone who was victimized by getting too close to their actual identity. Maybe you have to change the whole location of your story, take it out of the Yukon, put it somewhere else. As a fiction writer you have so much room, it’s not difficult to do that.

And young offenders still have so much potential in their lives, we don’t want to screw it up for them. They screwed up a little bit, let’s not screw it up more. Let’s give them the best chance they have to reintegrate and rehabilitate.

It’s kind of the same as the ethical question, you have to look at what you’re doing and say, “OK, what’s the potential for someone being harmed or further victimized by this? How far do I have to take this story away from reality?”

Sometimes I think you have to take it really far. I was thinking of a 14-year-old girl in Ross River, the niece of a pedophile. If we’re fictionalizing it we have to leave Ross River, we have to give her a new age, and we have to change the relationship.

That’s what my instinct says about how far. How vulnerable is the victim? The more vulnerable the victim, the further we have to push the fiction away from the truth.

Davidson also spoke about news blogging, fraud investigation and evaluating a story’s appeal – equally aspects of true crime and crime fiction.

The next Yukon Mystery Lounge guest is former counterfeit analyst Nick Tilgner, November 24, 7:00 pm at Well-Read Books.

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