The Courts Beat

If Nate Gartrell doesn’t report on police misconduct in his county, who will?

Nate Gartrell flipped through a fat stack of pages. “I’m basically just looking for homicides,” he said. Every week, Gartrell, a thirty-one-year-old reporter for the East Bay Times, visits the records office of the Contra Costa County criminal courthouse in Northern California, where a young clerk greets him with a smile and two sets of documents. One lists all the defendants scheduled to appear in the coming days; the other contains police reports detailing recent arrests. In late October, the schedule alone was a hundred and sixty pages long—nearly five hundred defendants. There were always more stories in the pile than Gartrell could cover, but he hated the thought of missing something important. So he scanned every sheet, tracing his index finger along each name and criminal charge, snapping a photo on his phone whenever a detail caught his eye.

The only way to understand what was in front of him—to identify who was coming to court, when, and for what—was by knowing how to read the penal codes. It took Gartrell a year to memorize them. PC 203: “That’s mayhem,” he said. “It’s like gouging someone’s eyes out or disfiguring a face.” PC 459: burglary. The one with an “HS”: a meth charge. There was a code for police chases. Robbery. Gun possession. Assault with a deadly weapon. PC 187: murder. Gartrell had been noticing a lot of 187s lately—not owing to a sudden spike in killings, he explained, but because of a recent change in California’s felony murder rule.

Gartrell is a devoted custodian of the courts beat. He is the reason you may have read in today’s paper that police are investigating a dead body found on the 300 block of Lemarc Street, and he tracks what happens after someone is charged with a crime. Some cases involve dangerous criminals; others center on someone jailed for months, only to be deemed innocent; more than a few turn up wrongdoing on the part of prosecutors or the police. When Gartrell speaks with me about what goes on in court—like lawyers meeting the burden of proof, say, or gang turf wars—each sentence cuts into the next, the habit of someone trying to pack a lot of nuance into little time. He has stark brown eyes, a mat of brown hair, and a deadpan sense of humor. He swears a lot. In his shirt pocket, he has tucked three pens—in case his backup needs a backup.

Gartrell stopped at a page and took note of two names: one a gang member in east Contra Costa, the other a man who had been arrested for running a multimillion-dollar auto theft ring around the Bay Area. Continuing on, he paused at the name of a former county election official who’d been charged with perjury and other crimes. “He embezzled money from his campaign fund and used it to renovate his second home, in Hawai‘i,” Gartrell said. “He was a great fucking source, too. We all trusted him.”

The pandemic had slowed everything down. The jails weren’t allowing visits, even from lawyers, and jury selection was taking longer now that only twenty people could be in the courtroom at a time. Gartrell, however, was having his busiest year yet. When we first spoke, in July, he had already written over three hundred and fifty stories; by December, that number had more than doubled.

All through 2020, the country grappled with its history of systemic racism and what felt like a torrential wave of police violence against Black and other marginalized people. Thousands poured into the streets to demand an end to brutal police tactics, mass incarceration, and structural inequality. Municipalities tried to figure out how to respond—some considered abolishing their police departments altogether—while the court system remained in the background, as an important, if less discussed, part of the problem. Criminal charges are exceedingly rare among fatal-police-shooting and excessive-use-of-force cases; in the absence of local or state prosecution, the only recourse a victim’s family usually has is to sue a city in federal court, seeking damages for wrongful death or violation of civil rights. Those cases, often settled quietly, receive relatively little notice from the public unless someone like Gartrell places attention there.

For Gartrell, who is white, watching the video of an officer killing George Floyd was a reminder of the need to question official narratives. He was struck by how much the footage contradicted the initial statement by police, which had attributed Floyd’s death to a “medical incident.” Gartrell never wanted to be the kind of reporter who would accept that kind of story. “I remember this sinking feeling of, Holy shit, have I ever had something like this happen on my watch, in my jurisdiction, and not dug because it wasn’t on video?” he said. “It’s a scary thought, that maybe there’s something people should know about that they didn’t know about because I was too naive or stupid.” He had to make sure he always scrutinized the paperwork. The weekly court record checks could be tedious and time-consuming, but such is the work required to always be watching, to notice when something is off.

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Several years ago, David A. Sellers, who has served as a public information officer for the federal court system since 1987, observed that news about the courts tends to focus disproportionately on the eighty or so decisions made annually by the Supreme Court. Yet it is America’s lower courts, he wrote, in each state, county, and city, that resolve the majority of criminal and civil cases. Their work—“the people, the trends, and most importantly, the impact”—goes largely unnoticed. “Gone from the press room are reporters from evening papers, newsmagazines, and most regional papers,” he found. Their disappearance left a gap in coverage that needed to be filled. “If not the media,” he asked, “who?”

Around the time of his writing, American newspaper employment was plummeting. The Pew Research Center found that outlets were eliminating beats to save money; a reporter once assigned to focus on local courts, for instance, was now also being tasked with covering city hall or education. Bruce Cadwallader, who covered the cops and courts in Ohio for twenty-five years, had found himself loaded with thirty judges to follow; he was filing up to six stories a week. He had to become more selective about which cases he followed. Eventually, he left his job, at the Columbus Dispatch, and took a position outside journalism. “People have little information about who’s presiding over these cases,” he told me recently. “The public has lost the ability to understand their own legal system because of the lack of coverage.”

Lately, courts and law enforcement have made gestures toward transparency, hiring public information officers, moving records online, and expanding their social media presence. But that has left scarce room for the press and the public to push back on official narratives. “You get spoon-fed stuff from the prosecutor’s office—‘We’ve got this conviction, that conviction,’ ” Mike Carter, who covers federal cases and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seattle Times, told me. He pointed to the rise of digital news organizations like the Marshall Project, The Crime Report, and The Appeal as direct responses to the need for greater criminal justice coverage. But without reporters regularly showing up at local courts, the judicial branch had turned into “a kind of black hole,” Carter said. “You need someone who knows where to go, who to talk to, what’s going to happen next.”

Those who work inside courtrooms are often among the first to notice the effects of a depleted press corps. Michael Haddad, a civil rights attorney who represents plaintiffs in police brutality and jail death cases in Northern California, told me that he used to rely on a handful of experienced local crime reporters to cover lawsuits in detail. Now, with the notable exception of Gartrell, members of the press rarely call him anymore. “Most reporters will write their entire story just from our press release and print the quote that I put in it,” he said.

In the Bay Area, the consequences of thin reporting are dire—the outwardly progressive politics of cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley belie a reality complicated by a growing housing crisis, a widening wealth gap, and a criminal justice system that targets Black and Latinx communities at a disproportionate rate. “It’s racism with a mask on,” Pendarvis Harshaw, a reporter at KQED, the local NPR station, told me. In the courtroom, these disparities weigh heavily: a recent ABC7 News investigation found that Black people in Bay Area cities are more than four times as likely to get arrested as white people. Qiana Washington, a former public defender in several Bay Area counties, told me that a defendant’s fate following arrest often depends less on the crime itself than on outside factors—anything from how much experience a defense attorney has to the implicit bias of a judge. When court reporting foregrounds the view of the prosecution and police, she said, it can skew the public’s perception of guilt and innocence. Washington, who runs a criminal defense practice in Contra Costa County and serves on the board of the local bar association, said that reporters like Gartrell play an important role in educating juries. “Without Nate,” she told me, “we would really have a void.”

Gartrell landed in his position almost by luck. He joined the paper, then called the Contra Costa Times, as a metro reporter in 2014. But things were changing: The paper had fallen under the control of Alden Global Capital, a New York–based hedge fund notorious for acquiring media companies and slashing them for profit. Through an entity called the the Bay Area News Group, Alden had set out to consolidate, and, in 2016, the Contra Costa Times was absorbed into what became known as the East Bay Times, along with the former Oakland Tribune and Daily Review. Soon, the Bay Area News Group cut its staff from about 380 to 250; after a couple of years, the company had just 160 people left. Gartrell’s original team dissolved; his former editor became a regional reporter. Sending beat writers out to cover several cities in the area became the new normal.

Amid the shuffle, a reporter on the courts beat became a columnist. Gartrell wound up in the vacated job and eventually found himself working out of a closet-size cubicle in the back of the civil court clerk’s building. (His old office building was demolished and replaced by a charter school.) At the courthouse, he got to know his main competitors: a couple of reporters for the Bay City News, which for many years touted its local courts coverage. But after a while, they stopped showing up. On most days, Gartrell is the only member of the press around.

 

Gartrell grew up in a waterfront suburb near the border of Contra Costa, a county of just over a million people spread across nineteen cities and suburbs along the Bay Area’s eastern edge, opposite San Francisco. In the late nineties, when he was still young enough to play with Legos and Pokémon cards, a series of stories in the local papers about child kidnappings gripped him with terror and curiosity. “I really couldn’t relate to why someone would do that,” he said. “That’s what initially drew me in.” Gartrell’s father, who worked for the water department, and his mother, a poet, tried to shelter him from violent stories by hiding their copies of the paper. Gartrell managed to get his hands on them anyway, at friends’ houses.

During high school, rumors often circulated in his social circles: about a local cartel safe house getting busted, or drug deals gone awry. Gartrell became fascinated by the criminal underworld that seemed to surround him. “There was all this stuff happening right under the nose, a second society of people,” he said. “I lived in a pasty-white suburb, what I thought was a crime-free, Beaver Cleaver land, and there were people selling meth by the ten-kilo pack, stashing Uzis, building secret compartments in their homes.” One summer, a close friend and his sister saw their parents get stabbed to death by an uncle, and they had to testify against him at trial. Their uncle had chosen to represent himself, which meant that he cross-examined his nephew and niece. “His premise was that he had done the world a favor,” Gartrell recalled.

In his junior year, Gartrell received encouragement from David Ruenzel, an English teacher and the adviser to the high school newspaper, to take a journalism class. Gartrell had been coasting on a B-minus average—the kind of student, he said, “who rolled a joint in the back of the class, always being told I wasn’t applying myself enough.” His first assignment for the school paper was about a profane but beloved history teacher who’d recently announced he was leaving. The teacher gave a farewell speech during a morning meeting; Gartrell can still remember hearing gasps in the hall. “He made it sound like he was leaving voluntarily,” he recalled. But a rumor spread that the teacher had, in fact, been fired. Gartrell decided to look into it. He interviewed faculty and students, one of whom suggested that the teacher, who was gay, had been unpopular among faculty because of his sexual orientation. Ruenzel approved the assignment, but a school administrator killed it after reading a draft, without giving a clear reason. “They used some government language, like fuckin’ The story was inaccurate,” Gartrell said. He wound up publishing the article on a classmate’s LiveJournal, confirming for the first time that the school had, in fact, asked the teacher to leave. Gartrell’s scoop became the talk among classmates; he got an A in journalism. From then on, he said, “I pretty much was dead set on that.”

At San Francisco State University, Gartrell took an introductory reporting course with Thomas Peele, a longtime investigative journalist. On the first day, Peele warned his students that two factual errors would get them an automatic F on an assignment. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is fucking great,’ ” Gartrell said. A handful of students dropped out. Gartrell got an A-minus, one of the top grades. The following year, Peele offered Gartrell a paid gig to help him research a book about Chauncey Bailey, a newspaper editor from Oakland who had been assassinated by members of a criminal ring he’d been investigating. Gartrell occasionally met Peele at the office of the Oakland Tribune, where he picked up tips from veteran journalists on how to request a police report and a death certificate. That summer, he attended the trial of the men accused of killing Bailey. “So the first time I’ve ever been in court watching a murder case, I saw pictures of a journalist with bullet holes in his head,” he said.

In 2017, Gartrell married his high school sweetheart, Sarah. She respects her husband’s passion for journalism, though she worries sometimes. Over the years, she’s seen him struggle with the emotional toll of covering gruesome crimes. And she figures that being the only outside observer in a courtroom makes Gartrell easy to spot by people who might want to silence him. Still, she told me, “I can’t see him doing anything else.”

 

Photography by Peter Prato

 

One afternoon in September, I called Gartrell as he bounced in and out of several courtrooms in Martinez, Contra Costa’s county seat. Trials were reconvening after a six-month hiatus due to quarantine orders, and his days had quickly filled up with hearings. He wanted to make sure he had time to attend a coroner’s inquest into the recent death of an incarcerated person, and he had to keep checking the clock. “When you have two places you need to be in at once,” he said, “you have to be able to anticipate what the witness is talking about so you can know whether you want to be in place A or place B.”

Gartrell has heard colleagues dismiss coroner’s inquests as canned affairs: a jury meets whenever someone dies in custody—most often in jail or in an encounter with police—hears out the evidence, and votes on a cause of death. Unlike at a typical court hearing, witnesses at an inquest can watch one another testify; an officer appointed by the DA’s office is allowed to ask leading questions; and police can enter hearsay testimony. More often than not, the deaths are ruled accidents or suicides or are deemed to be the result of natural causes. The verdict doesn’t carry any criminal or civil liability for the officers involved. But from his early days as a courts reporter, Gartrell discovered that inquests can provide illuminating details about who the deceased was; what led to the person’s death; and what, if anything, might have prevented it. He rarely sees many people in attendance—an attorney, maybe a family member or two. The hearings have their flaws, Gartrell said, but they allow members of the public to ask questions, and he sees few alternative ways to get information.

In the spring of 2017, Gartrell went to an inquest concerning a thirty-two-year-old man named Humberto Martinez, who had died after a struggle with officers in Pittsburg, an industrial city in the upper reaches of Contra Costa County. Initial police statements about Martinez’s death were sparse: he’d had a criminal record; led officers on a short pursuit; he was Tased; he fought with cops as they tried to arrest him; he bit one, breaking skin. A Pittsburg police captain told reporters that, after more officers arrived and managed to handcuff Martinez, he became unresponsive. “Officers were able to resuscitate the suspect at the scene,” a breaking news story, which Gartrell co-reported, read. “He was transported to the hospital, where he died. Police could not say if the suspect had any medical conditions.” The Contra Costa County district attorney declined to press charges against the officers involved.

During the inquest, a forensic pathologist testified that he’d found cuts, bruises, and several broken ribs on Martinez’s body. Several officers who had been at the scene also spoke, including one who said that he’d used an arm to put Martinez in a carotid hold, a choke hold technique that cuts off blood flow to the brain and can squeeze the neck so tight that the arteries close. Afterward, Gartrell spoke to Haddad, the civil rights attorney, who had been retained by Martinez’s family to sue the City of Pittsburg. Haddad told him that Martinez’s family had been denied police reports detailing the incident, and that they were preparing a lawsuit. Haddad also mentioned that he had seen a video of Martinez’s struggle with the cops, and that the footage reminded him of what happened to Eric Garner, who was killed by a New York City police officer in 2014, suffocated in a choke hold. Garner’s dying words—“I can’t breathe”—had since become a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Gartrell decided to file a public records request asking the Pittsburg Police Department for body or dashcam footage recorded while Martinez died. It was a shot in the dark; police departments typically declined to release videos, citing an ongoing investigation or a pending lawsuit. But Gartrell made a habit of submitting requests anyway, whenever he heard about a death in police custody. After a few weeks, when his request for the Martinez footage was still pending, “I thought, Gee, they might actually give me something.

Months went by. Eventually, the Pittsburg police sent Gartrell an email with two videos attached. He’d gotten them on a technicality: the department had already shown the footage to Haddad, which meant the videos were public record. Gartrell soon published a story, making the footage visible to the general public for the first time. In one video, viewers could see an officer place Martinez in a carotid hold for at least fifty seconds as he told them, “I can’t breathe.”

The video was picked up by local media outlets, including Telemundo, ABC, and KTVU. The California Reporting Project, a partnership of forty news organizations across the state, cited Gartrell’s report in an investigation analyzing the use-of-force records released by 122 law enforcement agencies. “There’s a lot of things about that video—the fact that somebody stays on his neck for so long after he’s already unresponsive, and they don’t know that he’s basically dying until somebody else points it out—it’s a hard video to watch,” Gartrell said.

In the year after he obtained the footage, Gartrell started to notice that, during several inquests, investigators played video of other fatal police encounters. A new state law had required cops in California to wear body cameras, making the incidents more visible than before. Because an inquest is a court proceeding, and anything shown to a coroner’s jury is entered into the public record, Gartrell was able to draft public records requests for all the material—a breakthrough in his ability to cover how officers treated people in their custody, and to tell stories that might never have surfaced otherwise.

In October 2020, more than three years after the inquest into Martinez’s death, the family won a $7.3 million settlement in their civil rights lawsuit—one of the highest such payouts the country has ever seen. Haddad told me he thought that the outrage over videos like the one Gartrell publicized put pressure on judges and juries to deliver larger sums. But monetary compensation is just one part of the accountability families seek in these cases; their settlement terms also tend to include police reforms, which can be harder to negotiate. In the Martinez case, Haddad said they had made a few demands, including that the City of Pittsburg ban carotid holds. “They were really resistant,” he said, of the Pittsburg officials, “until George Floyd.”

Haddad has observed how much is required to bring about systemic change—mass protest, litigation, facts on the ground. Reporters like Gartrell, he said, have an important role to play. And there is reason to hope, albeit cautiously, for pivotal coverage to come: in the years between Martinez’s death and his family’s settlement, California passed new legislation requiring that investigations of fatal police encounters be made accessible to the public, a landmark in the state’s commitment to transparency. Several law enforcement agencies destroyed years of records just before the new bill went into effect; others delayed releasing them even months afterward; but a few, Gartrell has found, are now sending over their footage without his having to ask.

 

One evening, Gartrell emailed me to share some news: the paper had assigned him to cover Alameda County’s courts, on top of Contra Costa’s. I congratulated him on what sounded like a promotion. But it added to an already full plate—Alameda County is home to fourteen cities, including Berkeley and Oakland. Gartrell told me matter-of-factly: “It more than doubles my workload.”

Like others in ever-shrinking newsrooms, Gartrell has learned to be judicious with his time. In a typical week, he averages fifteen stories. If he needs to devote a block of hours to sitting in on court hearings or driving around to pull records, he might publish four or more stories in a day. He monitors his traffic analytics to gauge which articles resonate most with readers—a quick hit about a man who cannibalized his grandmother, for example, could free up a few hours to chip away at an investigation into civil asset forfeitures. Often, it’s the subjects that Gartrell finds most important that receive the fewest clicks—stories about people with mental illnesses who end up in jail, for instance, whose cases stall while the court debates their competency to stand trial. His editors encourage him to go after stories with impact, but Gartrell has found it impossible not to notice that the reporters he’s seen get laid off are those who generate the least traffic. So he pushes himself, into late nights and weekends. Grace Wyler, Gartrell’s editor, told me that she views him as something between “a unicorn” and “a maniac.” She added, “Nate is a paper-of-record reporter with Daily Mail instincts.”

Gartrell didn’t think to give himself a break until he’d been on the courts beat for three years, when Sarah gave birth to their daughter, Scarlett. He went on paternity leave. Shortly after Sarah and Scarlett came home from the hospital, though, he stole some time to finish his civil asset forfeitures investigation. And a few days into his leave, Sarah told me, the couple decided that he may as well go back to work until she had to return to her job, at a local gym. “He was still very busy, and I remember thinking, ‘Okay, well, we just had a baby, did you want to come and say hello to her?’ ” (Lately, she said, Gartrell had been making an effort to step away from work on the weekends. They’d just taken a trip to the zoo.)

Now that he had to cover Alameda’s courts, Gartrell needed to comb through roughly five hundred additional cases each week and report on a sheriff’s department that was less than forthcoming about deaths in custody. (While working on a story about someone who had been beaten to death by a cellmate, Gartrell learned that the jail’s public information officer didn’t know about the incident until a journalist asked.) To manage the extra work, he’s had to become more selective about when to sit in court, and he’s found himself spending less time than he’d like following federal drug and weapons possession cases, which carry long sentences. “Now that’s falling by the wayside,” he said.

Less than a month after his beat had been expanded, we met up. Gartrell was reporting a slew of new stories: He was looking into a sheriff’s deputy who’d been fired for misconduct (“awful shit you’ll see lol,” he’d texted me), another body camera case, a local district attorney controversy, a traffic cop lawsuit, an off-duty officer who shot a man in the back, a cop charged with sexual harassment, an officer who was charged for a fatal shooting. And he was writing a follow-up to his investigation into civil asset forfeitures.

We stood under some shade across from a county courthouse. I asked how long he thought he could keep juggling so many stories. “Basically, the plan is until I get laid off,” Gartrell said, only half joking. This was the job he’d always wanted, the job to which he’d gravitated even before he knew it existed. One of the first cases he heard about after joining the Contra Costa Times, he said, involved a childhood friend of his who had been convicted of murder. Later, during one of his first interviews as a metro reporter, his father called to deliver some bad news: Ruenzel, his first journalism teacher, had been shot and killed while hiking in the Oakland Hills. Gartrell drove straight to his high school parking lot, where a small pack of TV reporters were waiting around for someone to interview. He answered a few questions, holding back tears. “It had been on my to-do list to say ‘Thanks for inspiring me’ and ask him out to lunch,” Gartrell told me.

As trying as his work is, he feels that he’d been prepared. And over time, he’s drawn more lessons: reporting on the courts has convinced Gartrell that the most important pillar of American society, maybe even more than the right to vote, is the right not to be searched or arrested by the government without just cause. That pillar, he said, was “built to make sure the innocent don’t get harassed at the expense of protecting people who might be guilty.” To do his job well, he’d learned, meant listening to the people most likely to be targeted. And he had to keep showing up in court with his notebook and pens. “If the justice system was designed to be fair, and there are people saying it’s unfair based on factors a person can’t control, like race or gender, that’s a serious flaw that needs to be remedied immediately,” he said. “That can’t happen unless someone acknowledges that it exists.”

Gartrell had just checked in to the court clerk’s office, the final stop on his records tour for the day. The visit turned up nothing. The clerk who typically gave him the weekly filings was out to lunch; neither of the two women behind the window recognized Gartrell or knew where to find the documents for which he’d come. Gartrell debated what to do. He could wait for the regular clerk to return, but that would risk missing an important press conference. He could return the next day, but that would mean adding an extra stop on his way to Dublin, a suburb forty-five minutes away, where he’d planned to go through the Alameda County court filings system. Finally, he decided to cut bait. “Thank you very much for checking,” he told the ladies, flashing them a smile as he walked out. He’d be back tomorrow.

 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correctly describe the consolidation of the East Bay Times.

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Jaeah Lee is an independent journalist who has written for The California Sunday Magazine, Mother Jones, Topic, Vice News, Pop-Up Magazine, and others. She’s based in San Francisco.

TOP IMAGE: Photography by Peter Prato