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|| News Item: Posted 2005-12-22

Seeing A Story Through
By Chip Litherland, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Susan Schorpen, left, mother of 11 year-old Carlie Brucia, weeps with Judy Cornett, a victim and advocate herself, as the verdict of guilty on all counts is read against Joseph Smith at the Sarasota County Judicial Center in Sarasota, Fla.
As many Americans gathered with family and friends to watch the Super Bowl, 11-year-old Carlie Brucia left a friend's house and decided to walk home alone. She would never be seen by her family again.

During the following days after her disappearance a grainy security videotape surfaced depicting a man in a mechanic's uniform approaching the young girl and leading her away from behind a car wash. That video was played nationwide nearly daily on every news station. That car wash was only a couple miles from my own home in Sarasota, so needless to say it impacted my community greatly.

The following days were spent by myself roaming the area photographing family and friends putting up flyers, press conferences, and the ensuing media circus. The media was used by the family and the Sheriff's department to get the video played as many times as possible and to let the community see the tears of the family desperate to find their child.

At 6 AM the following Friday, I was awakened by a call from my director of photography telling me they had received a tip that her body was found. They didn't know where, but heard it was a church east of I-75 - not a small area, but an area with many churches.

I drove the roads I knew and after several wrong turns, I saw police tape flapping in the morning light and a large field behind a church being combed by a line of police through a thick fog. I called back and told them I had found her. Within an hour, every news station covering the story was there.

Shortly after, Joseph Smith was charged with her abduction, rape, and murder.

I requested to shoot the trial once I heard the news Smith was arrested. Not exactly sure why, but a lot had to do with wanting to see this story through and see the justice process from beginning to end.

I had never sat through an entire trial. But covering the crime itself drew me to it. I knew many of the witnesses, had seen much of the evidence in the case, and knew a lot about what had happened - both what was reported and not.

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Joseph Smith sits with his public defender team Adam Tebrugge, left, and Steven Schaefer, right, after testimony concerning his alleged confession to his mother and brother in the February 2004 abduction and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia.
There were a few pre-trial motions, which Smith didn't attend, but when he was forced to show for one, that's when the circus came back to town. In a case like this, there was a pool arranged by the court system, and I was selected as the pool shooter for the entire trial.

Being the pool photographer can be exciting, as your photos are the only ones that any publication can use, and my photos were used in every major magazine, newspaper, and online publication covering the case. This can also be a curse, because court shooting can be extremely draining. This case was different because of how close I was to it, proven in the fact that one of my photos was used in trial by the defense during a gag order motion.

The court had a seating chart and I saw said chart with a little square with the word "camera" on it in the front row, second from the aisle on the left. I spent nearly two months from mid-October to the beginning of December of this year sitting in this one seat for 8 hours-a-day everyday.

To my right was Savannah Guthrie, the CourtTV reporter who had the video pool and broadcast the trial live everyday gavel to gavel. In the seat directly behind me was Carlie Brucia's father, Joe Brucia, who was flanked by family and friends. A row or two behind him was Carlie's mother, Susan Schorpen, reporters from the AP and every local paper and TV station filled the rows behind them. Joseph Smith's family didn't show until the end, when they did, they were on the other side of the courtroom.

In front of me was a table of the three state attorneys prosecuting the case, which I had to constantly duck and weave to get my shots. There was also a podium that always seemed to be placed right in between the witness stand and me, so I was blocked more in this trial than at any basketball game by referees' backsides.

I constantly had to beg the attorneys and bailiffs to move the thing at break. To my right was the defendant Joseph Smith, who was blocked by his public defender many times, but that wasn't nearly as bad as that evil podium.

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Attorneys from the prosectuion and defense meet during a sidebar with Circuit Court Judge Andrew Owens during the trial of Joseph Smith at the Sarasota County Judicial Center in Sarasota, Fla.
During the trial I wasn't allowed to photograph the jury so they weren't identified and open for scrutiny by the community, but amazingly everyone of them left the courtroom and faced the cameras after their verdict was read. Everything else was fair game, except for the autopsy photos - which a long, Supreme Court issue resolved after trial. Google it.

Many local judges hate the sound of the shutter of still cameras, and will make that known and throw you out if you don't muffle the sound. I had a muffler on my camera 90% of the time, except for those moments I might miss by switching cameras and lenses. When I did shoot without it, it definitely drew attention to me. I never motor-drived any moment, and only shot when I thought I absolutely needed to.

The lighting was terrible: 1/60 - 1/125 at f/2.8 on ISO 800 depending on where people were standing. The room was filled with various degrees of tungsten light, which you could see had very different color. I got stuck in a rhythm as far as color correction with Photoshop CS's amazing new photo filter tool (Adjustments: Photo Filter), but ideally I would have shot a preset and gone from there in retrospect.

I had a 300mm on one Nikon D2h and 70-200mm on another in my lap. A 17-35mm was on the floor, just in case, but I used it maybe twice. For the most part, my eye was focused through the 300mm for the entirety of the trial, which I could fill the frame with a witness' or the judge's head and shoulders.

Needless to say, the conditions weren't great and only a handful of the nearly 50 witnesses actually showed emotion on the stand, so I had to be creative with my shooting. I was stuck shooting photos that ranged from glorified mug shots to talking heads. The photo that most organizations wanted daily was that of the defendant, Joseph Smith. I have more frames of the left side of his face than I know what to do with, so basically I was waiting for any twitch, smirk, glance that might show any sort of emotion - and there wasn't much to work with. I think I could draw a police mug shot of him if I had to - detailing every little nook and cranny of his face.

Let me make this point clear: 95% of a trial is un-photographable (yes, that is a word).

I praised the photo gods when someone talked with their hands.

I spent my down time letting my eye wander to make images for myself - details of hands, funky compositions, etc. - all of which would never see the light of day. I was able to incorporate my own vision into the daily work on occasion, but in court cases our job is to document the proceedings merely as a documentary photographer. I snuck a little "Chip" in whenever possible.

With the gavel-to-gavel coverage, it was much like a football game. I was asked for moments --- which I might have been blocked from photographing --- that they saw on live TV. CourtTV had one camera six seats to the left of me with a better angle, as well as a remote camera affixed to the ceiling with a direct shot on everyone's face - operated by another shooter in the back of the courtroom. It can be extremely nerve-racking and frustrating to not have a shot that they ask for, so I just made sure to keep my eyes, and - more importantly - ears open all the time.

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Public Defender Adam Tebrugge answers questions from the media after waiving the defense's right to make a closing argument on the seventh day of the trial of Joseph Smith at the Sarasota County Judicial Center in Sarasota, Fla.
The evidence was extremely graphic and definitely evoked a lot of emotions in me about my own daughter when having to listen to it daily. I couldn't help make that association.

One conscious decision I made was to introduce myself to the mom, father, and family and tell them who I was and when I would have to turn around and shove a lens in their face. I actually had to scoot back in my chair to shoot them with a 17mm, because I was that close. They thanked me for warning them, and there was never an incident with me after that - inside or out of the courtroom.

I choose to try to not befriend the family too much because I knew eventually I would have to take photos they might not like, so I in no way wanted them to think I was catering to them. I just wanted an amiable, working relationship. They seemed to respect what position I was put in because of my job as a photojournalist and didn't take their distaste of some of the media on me.

One of the hardest photos to take was of the mother crying hysterically during the verdict. It was shot full frame with a 200mm from only a few feet away. I got 5 frames quickly while facing the entire gallery looking at me, but in the end it was the most widely used shot from the entire trial.

Looking at the newsstand at a gas station the next day, all of the papers in Southwest Florida had used the shot on their A1 as dominate art. On Newseum and other online galleries, I saw more fronts from around the country with the same shot. That really reiterated the importance of the role a pool photographer plays - you are determining how the world remembers what you are photographing.

The defendant acknowledged me every once and a while with a nod "hello," and he never tried to hide his face. He did, however, learn how to hide his emotions, but I was able to capture him laughing, crying, and looking nervous with extremely subtle body language and facial expressions.

Photo by

Diagram of the courtroom.
Another conscious decision I made was to edit fairly with his photos and choose the middle-of-the-road in editing. I would alternate days of "happy" and "sad" photos. I had photos of him in full-on laughter, as well as making him look as evil as Lucifer himself, but tried to make the majority of photos as even as possible - because most of those moments would be taken out-of-context by the general public.

There were a few lighthearted moments that broke the intensity of the case for me such as Circuit Court Judge Andrew Owens asking if I would take his picture more if he affixed a large Nike swoosh across his robes, so he could possibly get an endorsement deal.

Another moment which I thought at first was funny, but then got home and was slightly disturbed, was when a member of Joseph Smith's defense team came up to me admiring my glass, and wanting to see how heavy a 300mm was and look through the eyepiece. I obliged, but she then told me "Oh, Joseph Smith was asking about you the other day." I gasped a little bit and then asked why.

She explained that Smith had sleeve tattoos (which was used to prove his identity on the tape of the abduction), and that he noticed my ink one day when I had my shirt rolled up. He then asked her, "Maybe we can pin this on the photographer." Not funny, but a true story nonetheless.

All in all, the trial was more of an endurance test. I was physically tired, mentally exhausted from the testimony, and hadn't shot anything else in weeks. When the verdict came, it was all over in the 10 seconds it took to read the piece of paper finding him guilty of the kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder and consequently recommended the death penalty. That is until January, when the Spencer hearing begins to determine the judge's sentence.

I will be there. Same seat.

(Chip Litherland is a staff photographer with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. This is his first article for Sports Shooter. For a look at Chip's work, check his member gallery:

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Litherland's member page

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