Credit: Shae Ashamalla | Mustang News

Journalism senior Nico Viñuela spent three months in Monterey County covering the Kristin Smart murder trial, with support from Mustang News and KCPR teams back in San Luis Obispo. KCPR sat down with him to talk about his experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCPR: What was your experience like? What did a typical day look like for you while you were covering the trial?

NV: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, court started at 8:30 a.m. So I woke up at 7:00 a.m., I went to court and I took about 22 to 25 pages of notes per day throughout the proceedings. Court would let out at around 4:30 p.m. 

Toward the beginning of the trial, I was working with a team: Elizabeth Wilson, Amelia Wu and Catherine Allen. So at first, [Elizabeth] and Amelia would write a draft of the story for Mustang News, which I would then edit, and then Catherine would also edit. While they were doing that, I would do an update for KCPR, which was about three to four pages long. Toward the end of the trial, [Elizabeth] and Amelia stopped working on the case because they had school. Tuesdays and Thursdays, court started at 10:30 a.m., which was nice.

KCPR: That’s a lot of work and a lot of heavy content.

NV: It was about anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a day that I was working on it. I wouldn’t get much time away from the work. I would get about an hour before I went to bed to process, but sometimes I wouldn’t. But that’s the nature of it, I guess.

KCPR: So what was it like for you to be absorbing the really heavy content of this case day in and day out?

NV: There was a boundary that I needed to set with myself that I think I did a bad job with. I’m not a person who can really separate emotion from work. I didn’t really process a lot of the information, sort of as a defense mechanism, and then it would hit me after. I didn’t deal with it very well, emotionally. I guess what I’m trying to say, it is really overwhelming. 

It was a very heavy case with a lot of heavy testimony and some pretty horrible exhibits that I feel changed by. It’s gonna take me a long time, I think, to be able to feel okay. After the trial, I have a lot to process. 

KCPR: How are you taking care of yourself now? 

NV:  I’m trying to take breaks, but it’s hard because every day I feel like I have to do something related to the trial because it’s a high-interest kind of story. I’m grateful that I was offered the opportunity, but it’s hard. It’s hard to deal with. But slowly, I’m getting better.

KCPR: Were you staying with your family during the trial?

NV: Yeah, I was staying with my parents. They live 10 minutes away from the courthouse. They were really supportive. Everyone’s been really supportive. I want to emphasize that I didn’t do it alone. Catherine edited every article. Naomi [Vanderlip] also edited some of them. [Elizabeth Wilson] and Amelia Wu helped on a lot of them. Especially toward the beginning of the trial, they wrote a lot of the content. Lauren Boyer, she was a rock for me on the KCPR side, and she handled a lot of the specifics with publishing and framing. Patti Piburn is incredible to me, and a huge emotional and professional support. Brady Teufel was really flexible with my classes that I wasn’t doing, obviously, throughout the trial. Everyone’s been really accommodating, been really, really helpful. It’s not something that I did alone. 

I came back to SLO a couple of times; I was here most weekends since school started. And there were a couple of days that court got canceled. I came those days for school, but I was mostly insulated.

KCPR: When you were here for the weekends, what did you usually spend your time doing?

NV: [I] tried to have as much fun as I could, although it was hard to remove myself from it. My friends were very happy to see me, and I was very happy to see them, so it was always a really nice break, and a good relief to be surrounded by the love that I knew was always there. 

Sometimes it’s hard to internalize when you’re physically away from someone, but I felt really loved and cared for when I was here. That was really nice. Everybody’s been really supportive about it, which I obviously just appreciate massively. Everyone’s been really great.

KCPR: The work you did was really important. It’s a shame you had to sacrifice a part of your well-being for it.

NV: I don’t want to overemphasize that, though. I mean, I did this thing, and it was a great professional opportunity, I felt really proud that I was able to serve my community. It’s kind of like a fantasy when you go into journalism, and you have this idea that you’re eventually going to tell stories that matter. But rare is the time that you really feel like they do. And I’m so humbled and so grateful that I was able to tell the story that I do think, obviously, really, really matters. And I feel indebted to my community and my team. And it was a horrible story, but I don’t want to emphasize the emotional impact it had on me; I’m grateful that I got to do it.

I want to, again, emphasize that I didn’t do it alone, and everyone kind of likes to pretend that I did. Because it’s easier to, it’s easier to just refer to me as the Kristin Smart guy instead of acknowledging that there was an entire team behind me the whole time. But there really was, and I’m very grateful to Catherine Allen, specifically; she was there every single step of the way. And she saw and read and edited every single story. So, you know, it wasn’t something that I did alone. I don’t know, I definitely could not have done it alone. At the end of the day, it was an incredible professional opportunity that affected me forever, in good ways and bad ways.

KCPR: What would you say the hardest part was?

NV: I think the hardest part was, there was a gag order on the witnesses and the attorneys. I sat with Kristin’s mom, Denise Smart, quite a couple of times. I always just wanted to, on a human level, reach out and say, “I’m so sorry,” but I couldn’t because I was a journalist. So it was hard to be next to all that grief and needing to be objectively reporting on the trial. That was very hard. And I’m happy I don’t have to do that quite as much anymore. Although, I still am kind of bound by my journalistic obligation. But I’m very proud of the work that I did, and I’m happy to have done it. You know, barring some emotional discomfort.

KCPR: Unrelated — so we can get to know you better because you are a person and this is not the only thing you’ve ever done in your life — what do you like to do in your free time?

NV: I like making music. I’ve been working on an album for about two years, which is going to come out soon. During the weekends, and when court was canceled, my biggest destresser was going to my friend Paul’s house. He is producing my album, and so I would go there, I would vent and then we would make some really cool music that I’m very excited about. So that was the other big project that I was doing over the summer that kept me afloat. It grounded me. It reminded me of the things that I love to do besides the things that I’m doing professionally.

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