Q&A with AP Journalist Denise Lavoie

Denise Lavoie has been a Boston-based legal affairs writer for The Associated Press since 2003. She covered the marathon bombing drama from the first hours of the investigation through the man-hunt and capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — then covered his entire four-month trial in federal court. Lavoie is one of the AP reporters featured in the new book, The Boston Marathon Bombing: The Long Run from Terror to Renewal.

Associated Press: You covered the Boston Marathon Bombing from start to finish — How would you describe that experience?

Denise Lavoie: As a journalist, the trial was fascinating to cover. As a human being, it was very sad, and at times, difficult to watch. I’ve never covered an event with such a large amount of human suffering. I had to work hard to keep emotion out of my reporting. I tried to take it one witness at a time, one scarred person at a time.

At AP, we do many updates each day, so I tried to write a little story about each witness or groups of witnesses in every update. At times, the witnesses were on and off the stand so quickly that I would just finish an update and it would be time to do the next one. At the end of the day, I would be struck by the volume of human suffering presented to the jury in just a few hours.

There was such a large amount of gripping testimony that sometimes I couldn’t fit it all in the story. I just did the best I could to capture it all, working within time and story length restrictions.

AP: Did anything surprise you or your colleagues during the reporting of this story?

DL: I think many reporters were struck by how candid the defendant’s attorney, Judy Clarke, was with the jury in her opening statement during the guilt phase of the trial. We knew prosecutors had overwhelming evidence, including videos that showed Mr. Tsarnaev and his brother near the bombing sites carrying backpacks, so we knew the defense was going to have a hard road during the guilt phase and would instead focus its efforts on trying to get the jury to spare his life. But I’m not sure any of us thought his lawyers would just come right out and admit “It was him” right off the bat like that.

Many people also thought the jury would choose a life sentence rather than the death penalty. Massachusetts is such an anti-death penalty state that he seemed to have a reasonable chance of getting a life sentence. Many reporters were expecting long, drawn-out deliberations, with the end result being a life sentence. Instead, the jury came back after about 14 hours and sentenced him to death. The jurors rejected the central theme of the defense — that his older brother heavily influenced him and pushed him down the path to terrorism.

“As a journalist, the trial was fascinating to cover. As a human being, it was very sad, and at times, difficult to watch.”

“Many reporters were expecting long, drawn-out deliberations, with the end result being a life sentence. Instead, the jury came back after about 14 hours and sentenced him to death.”

AP: What was it like in the court room during the emotional testimony by family members of loved ones who lost their lives on that fateful day in April 2013?

DL: It was heartbreaking. You could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom when Bill Richard testified about seeing his 8-year-old son, Martin, lying on the sidewalk after the second explosion. He said he knew just by looking at him that he wouldn’t make it and then had to make the agonizing decision to leave his son with his wife so he could get help for his daughter. Her leg had been blown off and she was bleeding profusely.

Reporters do their best not to get emotional while listening to testimony like this, but it’s sometimes impossible. I saw quite a few reporters with red faces as family members of the victims testified.

AP: How did this case compare to others you have covered?

DL: This was probably the longest and most intense trial I’ve ever covered. Jury selection began in early January and the trial didn’t end until mid-May. There were about 150 witnesses.

The testimony was intense every day. There was not a single day when I had to struggle to find a good lead. In fact, most days there were so many compelling stories to tell that it was difficult to decide which ones to highlight.

In other trials I’ve covered, I’ve found that the prosecution or defense sometimes waits until closing arguments to tie some elements together. Sometimes, the testimony is so subtle that it’s hard to figure out where it fits in the overall picture. In this case, I thought both sides did a good job of making it clear how the testimony of its witnesses fit in the big picture of what they were trying to show to the jury.

“There was not a single day when I had to struggle to find a good lead. In fact, most days there were so many compelling stories to tell that it was difficult to decide which ones to highlight.”

AP: What part, if any, does social media play in how you cover a high-profile case like that of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

DL: I used Twitter, but did not do the kind of live Tweeting that many reporters did. At AP, we need to get the news to our members first, so I can’t tweet out major developments until after they are already on the wire. So I tried to Tweet out color, like details on the defendant’s demeanor or interaction with his lawyers, or who was in the courtroom, and then tweeted out details on testimony after my stories hit the wire.

AP: Is there anything you hope resonates with readers of this book?

DL: I hope readers will get a sense of how many people were heroes in this tragedy. AP photographer Charlie Krupa was on Boylston Street within seconds of the explosions and he remembers vividly that about one-fourth of the people in the crowd were running toward the blast sites to help people. Understandably, many people panicked and ran in the other direction, but the fact that so many people ran toward the blasts is just amazing and heart-warming. People who were hurt themselves pulled off their belts and jackets to tie tourniquets around the legs of strangers. I’ll never forget the testimony of Steve Woolfenden, a guy whose leg was blown off by the second bomb. He was lying on the pavement frantically trying to get his 3-year-old son out of a stroller. After a police officer took his son to an ambulance, he heard Denise Richard next to him, pleading with her 8-year-old son, Martin, to live. Trying to give her some comfort, he gently put his hand on her back. In the midst of all her pain, Denise Richard turned around and asked him if he was ok. It’s those acts of kindness and selflessness that restore your faith in humanity.

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