Member Exclusive: Reporting B.F. (Before Ferguson)

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We just published our first SIDEBAR of 2015 — an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members.

Have you ever wondered how a story goes from an idea in a reporter's head to a published piece? This month, reporter Lee van der Voo gives an insider's look at how our latest investigation came to be.

Maybe a decade ago, my husband served on a felony grand jury. For 30 days in Multnomah County, he and six other people presided over person-to-person crimes, one of three sitting grand juries convened at all times.

His tales of kidnappings and busted eyeballs horrified us both. Every weekday for a month, instead of getting up and going to the office, he went to a room downtown to listen to tale after tale of life-altering violence.

His service left a lasting impression on both of us.

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Smart phones clash with 20th Century courthouse rule

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Every court is its own dominion. And the Clackamas County Circuit Court is unique, so far as I can tell, in its prickliness about technology.

Redacted.The court’s biggest recent flap involved a reporter who took a cell phone photo of a defendant on the witness stand. The phone was confiscated as unauthorized and court staff feared a crime victim was caught in the shot. But the move that has me head-scratching is a new sign in the records room. This one bans cell phone photos of documents, as well as electronic scanners or apps.

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It’s been a while since I found myself in this room full of rolling file cabinets and manila folders. But I recently noticed the sign hanging over the public reading area, pointedly banning the use of cell phone cameras or electronic scanners to copy records. I’d offer a photograph if I could have taken one, but you see my dilemma: that would be illegal.

If you haven’t been in this room before — a photograph sure would be helpful — then you might not know that it doesn’t contain anything sensitive. No grand jury notes in here. On offer instead is the standard day-to-day fare of the courts: procedural documents from divorce decrees and name changes, civil cases and arrest records, to the not-so-occasional eviction or foreclosure.

These same records will very soon be available online through eCourt. So when I learned that the Clackamas County Court doesn’t want people taking pictures or scans of them, the question I really wanted to ask was: Why?

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Reporter Conversation: Grand Juries Reform in Oregon

Can recording grand jury testimony make Oregon's criminal justice system fairer? Lee van der Voo visited the Think Out Loud studio to discuss that very question.

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Photo: Clackamas County Records Management

Photo: Leah Nash for InvestigateWest

Carol Hopkins, Clackamas Co. Records Management Supervisor, keeps boxes of court records organized at an off-site storage facility. Any notes taken by grand jurors as they hear testimony are stored here under tight security. We needed a judge's order just to access the warehouse and take this photo.

Read our full report on secrecy in the Oregon grand jury system.

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Grand jury reform propelled by Ferguson

DeAnna Horne, a Multnomah Co. public defender, enters court with less armament than her counterparts in states where grand juries are regularly recorded. Defense attorneys elsewhere receive transcripts or recordings detailing why their clients are charged with crimes, but in Oregon no such records exist. 
Photo: Leah Nash for InvestigteWest

Nearly five years ago an unarmed black man was shot during an encounter with police. He had just stepped out of an apartment building with his hands behind his head.

It didn’t happen in Ferguson, Missouri. It happened in Portland, Oregon. And the man who lost his life that day was Aaron Campbell.

His death prompted Mike Schrunk, then-district attorney of Multnomah County, to ask a judge to record the grand jury process that reviewed the shooting. The result was a mountain of transcripts and evidence that daylighted the decision not to indict the officer who shot Campbell.

“I’ve always believed in the system,” said prosecutor Schrunk, but “you’ve got to have the confidence of the public in what you’re doing.”

The policy to record grand juries in cases involving police use of force continues in Multnomah County. This legislative session, a trade group representing defense attorneys will ask the Oregon Legislature to adopt a similar law to record grand juries statewide. And not just for police officers facing charges but for everyone.

The reason? Thirty-six states in this country record what happens at grand juries, the citizen juries that indict people for major crimes. Oregon isn’t one of them.

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Secret testimony: Inside Oregon's grand juries

With grand jury reform elsewhere focused on eliminating racial bias and curbing police use of force, Oregon remains an outlier. It is one of just 14 states that do not regularly record the citizen grand juries that charge people with felonies.

InvestigateWest set out to understand this secretive process as a renewed push for reform has found support in the Oregon Legislature. Photography by Leah Nash for InvestigateWest.

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Map: Where in the U.S. are grand juries recorded?

With grand jury reform elsewhere focused on eliminating racial bias and curbing police use of force, Oregon remains an outlier. It is one of just 14 states that do not regularly record the citizen grand juries that charge people with felonies.

InvestigateWest set out to understand this secretive process as a renewed push for reform has found support in the Oregon Legislature.

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Food fight pits iconic halibut against exports, fast food

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When the halibut fishing season is closed, Wade Bassi is still busy with his hook-and-line fishing boat, Polaris, at Fisherman's Terminal in Seattle. Other such fishing boats and trawlers as well are visible in the background. December 9, 2014
Photo by Peter Haley / The News Tribune

A struggle in Alaska over shrinking supplies of halibut is threatening the iconic centerpiece fish in favor of cheaper exports, fast-food fillets and fish sticks.

If expected cuts are made in January, halibut fishing could be over in the Bering Sea west of Alaska, the source of one-sixth of halibut caught in the United States. That catch includes most of the frozen supply that sustains restaurants, food-service companies and retail stores nationwide, such as Costco and Whole Foods.

“The problem is we are running out of rope. We have one more move: We can close the (Bering Sea) fishery,” said Bob Alverson, head of a Seattle-based fishing trade association and a U.S. representative to the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which sets limits on halibut fishing. “That’s going to be devastating if we have to do that.”

Those likely to suffer include fishing crews from Alaska to Oregon and vessel owners who invested in the halibut haul after it was privatized in 1995 in a failed bid to stabilize the fish stock. Perhaps more severely threatened are native Aleut villages of western Alaska that rely on halibut for both cash and sustenance.

The trouble stems from more than a decade of declines in halibut stocks targeted by fishing vessels that use long lines of baited hooks to reel in the popular fish.

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