Turning the tables

Like those scientific experiments in which investigators sometimes wonder if the observation of a phenomenon mysteriously influences the result, news stories have a way of changing before an observer’s very eyes.

That’s what happened to Stephen James’ cover story in this issue (see “The night they pulled me over,”). What started out as one kind of news story—about three women awaiting a criminal trial for an incident that began as a routine traffic stop—turned into something very different less than a week before it was scheduled to appear. Jury selection in the trial, James recalls, was supposed to begin on March 25, some 10 months after the original arrests. “But the case was abruptly dropped on March 14,” he noted, “apparently shortly after I left a message on the voice mail of the deputy DA handling the case.”

Though even we aren’t solipsistic enough to believe the specter of media attention was sufficient to cause the turnabout, it is curious to see how a story can evolve during its reporting. Now, the women are pressing charges by filing suit against the arresting officers, and the statements from eyewitnesses, police reports and court documents are expected to be brought forward in support of an entirely different set of allegations.

How all this will be resolved remains to be seen: Juries are likely to spend as much time contemplating conflicting testimony as they are empirical evidence in their search for truth. The same thing happens in journalism, wherein he-said, she-said stories lead to a kind of Rashomon effect that’s never as satisfying as one might like. Sometimes, the story, whether it’s in the courtroom, in the newspapers or out on the street, just keeps evolving.