The spectacle

Media descend on the city; the nation peers at the Waterman trial

Posted: Sunday, January 29, 2006

The murder of Lauri Waterman sent shockwaves from one small Alaska village around the world.

More waves are emanating from Juneau now that the murder trial of her daughter, Rachelle Waterman, is cast live to the world via the Internet from the Dimond Courthouse by Court TV. The case of the Craig teen who allegedly conspired with two former lovers to murder her mother has drawn a half dozen journalists from around the country to Alaska's capital this week.

"Matricide is so rare, especially for a 16-year-old," said Dateline NBC Senior West Coast Producer Sandra Cummings, who is attending the three-week trial. "It's a small town. The mother was clearly loved by everyone who knew her. It's kind of your average family with a couple of teenage kids, and how did this happen? That part of it is pretty interesting."

Neil Nesheim, area court administrator for Southeast Alaska, said he has never seen a trial in Juneau arouse so much attention, or cause so many media outlets to contact him. NBC, Court TV, CBS, ABC and KTOO public radio are some of the news agencies that have been arranging coverage of the Waterman trial through Nesheim's office.

Even though the trial is getting some national attention, Nesheim said the it is progressing at a normal rate.

"It's amazing that things are going so smoothly," he said. "It's just like any other trial that would take place in Juneau or Southeast."

Nesheim said the experience of Court TV covering trials across the country has helped keep trial coverage at Dimond Courthouse manageable. Only one camera has been allowed in the courtroom, but it is used by multiple companies to share footage. One courtroom has even been converted into a small media studio and viewing area.

"If there are too many people in the courtroom we have overflow seating downstairs where Court TV is set up and we've actually got a monitor so people can watch the trial," Nesheim said.

"That's the first time that I know that it's happened here."

The litigants' tables in the Juneau home of the Alaska Supreme Court are covered with high-tech equipment to streamline the trial over the World Wide Web. Court TV Extra is airing the trial live over the Internet with no commentators or interruptions for a subscription fee of $5.95 per month. A free 30-day trial period for new users is available, with the trial expected to be over in the next two weeks.

Court security guards Mejae Manalo and Delia Ruiz said they have never seen as many people at the Dimond Courthouse as were there for jury selection on Monday.

"It's the first time since we worked here three years ago that more than 100 people came at once," Manalo said.

One hundred and two potential jurors out of 152 people summoned showed up at the courthouse Monday, Nesheim said.

"It was busy that day," Ruiz said of Monday's jury selection. "We were surprised by that many people."

Manolo said the courthouse has been buzzing, and state employees walk over from the State Office Building throughout the day to catch a glimpse of the trial.

The Waterman trial has also drawn the attention of Dateline NBC reporter John Larson. The TV journalist formerly of Anchorage will come back to Alaska at some point during the trial to explore the story of an alleged murderer who, he said, "in all outward appearances has all the advantages of life."

Larson said this is an unusual case that will be of interest to his Dateline audience.

"First of all, it's matricide. It's a young girl being charged with killing her mother, which is extremely rare," he said. "Then you look closer at the situation and you have an honor student, someone who's an academic decathlete who sings in the choir, who plays volleyball."

Larson said the crime's nature and association with Internet blogging would draw national media attention anywhere. Waterman kept a Web log, or blog, titled "My Crappy Life," in which she shared details of her life in a small Alaska town.

"If this story was set in Oakland, Calif., we would still cover it," he said. "But the fact that it's in Alaska certainly makes it interesting to the people in the Lower 48 states."

Larson, who worked periodically in Juneau decades ago, said he is looking forward to coming back to Southeast Alaska to breathe fresh air and see some old friends.

"I love Juneau, just walking down the street in front of the Governor's Mansion," he said. "I think I had my first beer when I was right out of college in Alaska at the Baranof (Hotel)."

The chance to cover a trial in Alaska was enough reason for several journalists to jump on the story.

"The minute I found out they were going to do this trial I started lobbying for it: 'I want to go to Alaska,'" said Michael Christian, a producer for Court TV. "I didn't care where it was. I just want to go."

Christian said his co-workers in New York have been curious as much about Alaska as about the trial.

"I don't think I've ever gotten so many co-workers asking, 'How is it? How is it? How is it?' And nobody believes me when I tell them that it isn't cold."

Harriet Ryan, a senior writer for the Web site courttv.com, said it's nice to be covering a trial where there isn't animosity toward the press created by an overwhelming media presence. She said covering a trial in Alaska is a lot different than other assignments she's had, such as the Scott Peterson murder case, the Michael Jackson child molestation case or the Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs gun possession case.

Court TV sent some of its team to Craig prior to the trial to look deeper into the story. A Web page on courttv.com is dedicated to what they are calling the "Teen Blogger Murder Trial," with stories, pictures, an interactive map and excerpts from "My Crappy Life."

"Our experience in Prince of Wales was just great," Ryan said. "Those people are so nice and so welcoming, and it seemed like a wonderful place to live. I want to go back fishing in the summer."

Ryan said she was captivated by the Xtratuf Neoprene boots that are so popular in Juneau, and couldn't resist buying a pair.

"I bought these on my second day in Juneau, and I've never actually worn anything else outside," Ryan said. "I also think that people think that I'm local (because of the boots)."

The Alaska fashion has also been noticed by Cummings.

"Of course I was very interested in the 'Alaska Sneakers,'" she said of the Xtratufs.

One of the journalists from New York was surprised to see during jury selection that the outdated mullet hairstyle - long in the back, short on top or in the front - remains a favorite among some Alaskans.

Cummings said she sees a lot fewer people with Botox injections in Juneau than in Los Angeles.

"I think people are just a lot more natural and they're less concerned about designer labels and things," she said.

Being accustomed to the California sunshine required her to bundle up to deal with the snow this week.

"One of my first impressions was that you can't live here if you're a wimp," Cummings said.

Larson said the trial will get interesting as it progresses over the next couple of weeks.

"I'm really interested to see how it plays out," he said. "There's a lot of cases and trials that you can pretty much predict what's going to happen, and I can't in this one. I think it really depends on how the evidence is presented and explained."



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