In recent months two judges provided public visual access to places that are often not open to unfettered viewing and scrutiny — Wyoming courtrooms.
In response to WyoFile requests, judges used their discretionary authority to allow photojournalists to document proceedings in a criminal trespass case and a civil suit challenging the 2022 Wyoming abortion-ban law.
In Carbon County Circuit Court, Judge Susan Stipe allowed WyoFile to photograph the trial of four hunters who were charged with criminal trespass while corner crossing on public U.S. Bureau of Land Management land near Elk Mountain Ranch. In Teton County, District Judge Melissa Owens permitted a camera in her courtroom during hearings on Wyoming’s 2022 abortion-ban law.
The resulting photographs showed the public some of the actors in widely followed cases, some key courtroom moments and some of the emotional reaction of participants.
Bradly Boner of the Jackson Hole News&Guide photographed several abortion-law hearings and believes his images — shared with other media under a pool arrangement — helped the public understand what was at stake.
“It’s one thing to tell people what happened but it’s another thing to show them,” he said. “When people see faces, and when people see reactions, they see human beings. They see how it impacts people on a real-world, local, day-to-day basis.”
An emotional moment
Among the photographs were pictures of the corner-crossing defendants at the moment they celebrated their acquittal. In the abortion-law case, Boner got a photograph of plaintiff Dr. Giovannina Anthony as her emotions spilled over following Owens’ decision to grant a restraining order prohibiting enforcement of the abortion ban.
Boner’s instincts, training and experience guided him well, underscoring the value of professional photographers.
During many court proceedings, “there isn’t a ton of emotion,” he said. That required him to search for the slightest expression in a courtroom enmeshed in staid decorum.
“You really try to get any sort of interaction you can,” he said.
Before Owens issued the restraining order from the bench, Boner had a series of unremarkable photographs of Anthony and other participants. When the judge ruled, reporters rushed for the courtroom door to file stories.
“I looked over and Rebecca Huntington, our managing editor, had bolted out of the room, along with the rest of the reporters,” Boner said. “My instinct was to run out after them.
“I had the idea of getting back to the office and filing a photo to go with our story,” he said. “But when I was watching Dr. Anthony move around, I just hesitated for a second because I thought I could get a good photo of her interacting with her attorneys.
“She hugged her attorneys and shook their hands and that’s when she stopped and kind of put her hand over her mouth and closed her eyes.”
Anthony broke down and Boner got the shot.
“I think the weight of the restraining order kind of really struck her at that moment,” he said. “And she realized what that meant for her practice and, probably most importantly, for her patients — her being able to continue to serve her patients in the best way that she could.”
Wyoming court rules say judges may grant permission for photography if the media applies 24 hours in advance of a proceeding. WyoFile’s applications for these cases emphasized the quietness of the cameras that would be used and said a single photojournalist would be present and share his or her work with other organizations that had requested access.
Court rules bar television lights and photo flashes along with other potentially disrupting activities. They prohibit photographing jury members and allow a judge to forbid taking pictures of witnesses.
In the abortion-law suit, Judge Owens allowed Boner to sit in the jury box, which was empty, where he could better view participants. In one hearing he photographed Wyoming Special Assistant Attorney General Jay Jerde, a lawyer who has represented the state in several important cases but who is largely unrecognized by the public.
“I don’t think that there’s a big connection between Cheyenne and Jackson and to have this state official come all the way up to defend the state’s position — obviously that was going to be a big part of our story,” Boner said. “Putting a face to those names that appear all throughout a story paints a fuller picture of the situation.
“In my almost 19 years here now I don’t think I’ve ever photographed while court was in session,” he said.
“I think Judge Owens understood the implications and interest [in the abortion-law suit] on a variety of levels,” he said. “I think she recognized the national significance of it.”
To make his photograph of Anthony, Boner sat through almost three hours of arguments.
“It was one of the very last pictures that I took,” he said of the photograph.