On October 14, 2015, the goal for all team members at the ninth group meeting was progression – progression towards writing the full-text story, towards establishing PR events, and towards writing the machinima script for the Christopher Story. For this reason journalists, PR people and the machinima team were at the Center for Sustainable Journalism at 8AM, ready to review task lists and make progress. The journalists made calls for more interviews and found additional contextual contacts for the long text story. The PR team designed a publicity campaign to promote the project and events. The virtual world machinimists worked with Gwenette on the script and production pipeline for the Christopher Story. Production scenes, props, and characters are already being developed. Both the machinimists and journalists need confirmation on certain aspects of the case in order to tell the story accurately.
It is for this very reason – to uncover the accurate details of the case by hearing every possible perspective and retrieving additional documents – that four members of the journalism team were on a road trip to Augusta, GA, where the crime and the sentencing hearing occurred 15 years ago.
Journalists Claire Bohrer, Ann Ondieki, Camille Moore, and Ariel Greenaway, were on their way to Augusta to uncover more information about the case. At 5:30 AM, the journalists had met at the Center, piled into Ariel’s car, and set off on their mission after mapping out their game plan.
They first went to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office to see if the incident police reports requested weeks ago were ready. Since the crime occurred 15 years ago, the paperwork was taking much longer to arrive than anticipated. This delay is definitely a hindrance as deadlines approach for both the machinima and long text story. The journalists will be keeping in touch with the police sergeant to retrieve these reports as soon as possible.
Next the journalists navigated to the Richmond County Superior Court to examine case dockets, where they discovered new information and printed some of the documents. Then they went to the Augusta Municipal Court, to take pictures of the sentencing hearing courtroom. Unfortunately, the building’s courtrooms were re-purposed and renovated two years ago. Many of the machinima scenes take place in the courtroom. Pictures are needed to construct a courtroom virtual world scenario. No one in the building had pictures from before the renovations, so the journalists set off on a mission to find pictures elsewhere. After visiting the Augusta Historic Museum and contacting the Augusta Chronicle, they made connections that should be helpful in finding courtroom pictures circa 2000.
To dig deeper into details of the sentencing hearing, our journalists next visited David Weber, the lawyer who represented both Christopher Thomas and Christopher Butts at the sentencing hearing. Unfortunately, Mr. Weber was in court all morning and could not meet with us. Although he does not seem very receptive to speaking with us, his experiences is a vital part of the story. Over the next week, efforts to contact him will continue.
After the downtown Augusta tasks were completed, the journalists traveled to the scene of the crime at A-Awesome Pawn Shop on Tobacco Road. Arriving at the address, they could not find the pawn shop. The decision to visit a pawn shop down the road was unexpectedly a very valuable choice. There they happened upon the owner of A-Awesome Pawn Shop where the crime occurred in 1999. Greg, the owner, did not want to be recorded, but did answer several questions and tell the story of that day from his memory. He also explained there is now a liquor store at the location of the crime scene pawn shop. Today the building exterior looks practically the same with only the exception of different signs. After hearing Greg’s perspective of that day, the journalists took pictures of the crime scene to provide additional data for virtual world scenario construction.
The next interview was at the home of Ms. Sharpe, the foster mother caring for Christopher Thomas at the time of the crime. It turns out that Christopher and the two other boys involved in the crime were not the only children in her care. Ms. Sharpe stated she had 13 foster children living in her home in 1999. Ms. Sharpe stories about the crime, the boys and her experiences as a foster parent raised many new questions about Christopher Thomas’ life for the journalists – questions not only for Ms. Sharpe, but for DFCS (Department of Family and Children Sevices) and other facilities where Christopher had been placed.
With heads spinning and growing fervor, the journalists made their way to the last stop of the day, the victim’s house, unsure of how this encounter would develop. It could go one of two ways: He would be cooperative and answer any questions or he would be completely resistant and say nothing. Unfortunately, he was not willing to talk, speaking only a few disgruntled words: “They shot me. What more do you want me to say?”
Although the trip to Augusta was to find answers to many questions, the trip actually generated more questions than it answered. Hopefully, these new questions can be answered by the police reports, additional case documents, and a few more telephone interviews.
Though there is still clarity needed on some of the story’s details, one thing is clear: As the team delves deeper into this case, the story is coming alive on many different levels. Over the past few weeks, reading the documents has been the equivalent of a book for the team. However, now that our journalists have actually traveled to the scene, spoken with the people involved, and reported back to the team, this case has become very real for all the interns. As settings become real places and characters become real people, the story is no longer just words on paper. It is a reality these people lived through in 1999 and continue to live with today.
As one of the journalists in Augusta, I saw the interviews bringing people’s memories into focus. We watched their faces and listened to their real experiences unravel in front of us. We were reminded to treat every detail and person with care and respect.
Our new comprehension of the reality of the case strengthens our motivation to tell an accurate story so others can empathize with Christopher Thomas. After all, Christopher is a real person in jail for a crime he took part in at the young age of 13, for which he may have received an unjustly harsh sentence. Keeping this in mind, the whole JJIE VW team is striving to bring light to his case. Hopefully, our project will change the lives of very real people incarcerated unjustly at a young age, educate more people about juvenile justice issues and bring awareness to the problems of the Georgia’s Senate Bill 440.