In the Shadows of a Murder Trial: Fishbowl5 With WTOP Reporter Neal Augenstein

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein is among the lucky reporters covering the Lululemon murder trial. We caught up with him Monday to ask for his first impressions of the courtroom scene and to inquire about his past coverage of murder trials. The accused is Brittany Norwood for killing her Lululemon coworker Jayna Murray at the Bethesda store in March. The eight-day trial is taking place in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville, Md. Follow his twitter feed as the side notes are riveting: @AugensteinWTOP.

1. Did you ever shop at Lululemon and did you know what it was before the murder? I’d never shopped at Lululemon before I heard about the murder there. I’d seen the stores before, but hadn’t stopped to figure out how to pronounce it. I think the first few times I tried to say it, I said something closer to Lulamon.

2. Have you covered murder trials before? If so, when, where? Yep, a lot in the 15 years I’ve been with WTOP. I covered the Beltway sniper trials of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, both in the Virginia Beach area and here in Montgomery County, as well as Muhammad’s execution. I covered the Benjamin and Erika Sifrit Ocean City murder cases in Montgomery County and Frederick, as well as the murder of former New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum. I feel a bit guilty remembering these cases over other murders, because in each instance someone lost their life, and others’ lives were affected.

3. What has shocked you most so far? In this case? I think that on the eve of opening statements I have no real idea what Brittany Norwood’s defense will be. While her lawyers said they planned on using an insanity defense, the judge made clear he felt she was sane, and the defense decided not to plead Not Criminally Responsible. Usually I can tell from court motions what a defense will be, but her lawyers have been very careful to avoid telegraphing their strategy in comments or motions.

4. So far what do you think of Brittany Norwood? Without prejudging her innocence or guilt, I look at the defense table and see someone who 10 months ago had no idea she could be behind bars for the rest of her life. She likely never imagined she’d be called a murder suspect. And then I think of the family of Jayna Murray, and how their lives changed forever, and how powerless, angry, and sad they must feel. At the beginning of the trial, without having heard the evidence and testimony yet, I may feel different when it’s over. In my experience, the verdict and sentence usually comes out about right, somehow. I guess it proves the adage of the American legal system not being perfect, but being the best there is.

5. How do you feel hearing the details of the murder – the rope, the knives, the beating with the metal stand? Since my job is to report as accurately and in context as possible, as I first hear these details I’m concentrating on writing the words as close to verbatim as possible. As I’m writing them, I’m asking myself ‘have I heard these details before, is this new?’ So, I’m thinking more about gathering facts than immediately judging the gravity of the situation. As a reporter, I almost feel I’m being paid to avoid feeling too deeply, at least temporarily. But since a murder trial, by definition, involves a tragedy, I’m never too far from remembering there’s a victim as well as a person fighting for his or her life and freedom. I aim for right, fair, and first. Sometimes I get all three.