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Reflections of a Dateline producer: 'Crossing the Line'

Read the reflections of Shane Bishop, the Dateline NBC producer of 'Crossing the Line' from November 11th, 2011.  You can always keep the conversation going with our producers on Twitter: @DatelineNBCProd

Hi, my name is: Shane Bishop

I've been a Dateline producer for: 18 years

When I first came across this story, I thought to myself: I grew up about 3 hours from Kalispell, and I watch the Montana newspapers closely. My heart broke for the family of Erin and Caden, especially as I learned of the long-sought-for love that had entered their lives in the person of Jason. But as I became more familiar with the case, I also came to feel a great deal for compassion for Justine’s family. In nearly every story we do, people just like you and me are suddenly thrown into situations for which there are no instruction manuals.  People who are doing their best to just get through the day are forced to make decisions with far-reaching consequences. Both families did their best, but approached this tragedy in very different ways.

My inspirations in telling this story: I want to get every story exactly right, but it’s accurate to say that I was even more inspired in this case because it took place in my home state. It was a very small story at its core: a fatal car crash. But the story had spawned so many rumors, and its characters had so many nuances. It was important to do a story that was accurate and fair to both of the very decent families involved.

Something I won’t forget about Montana’s Flathead Valley: One night this past summer, the camera crews and I were out until 3 a.m. shooting all the video we needed for this story. We had a camera attached to the side of the car, and were driving up and down Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish. We’d stop frequently to adjust the camera or check the video. And it seemed every time we stopped, another car pulled in behind us. Each driver got out and asked us if we needed help. It was so kind, and it reminded me of why I’m so proud to be from Montana.

The most memorable words I heard: When Jason Thompson finally took the stand to speak directly to Justine Winter at her sentencing, I was struck by one passage detailing how he helps children as a school counselor. He said, “The thing I value and try to teach our children at a young age is when you cause harm to someone, the most important thing is to apologize, show concern for what you’ve done, and try to make amends.” You couldn’t follow this story without realizing just how far a simple apology would have gone for Jason and for Erin’s family.

The most admirable person I met along the way: Jason Thompson.

The most striking image I saw:  I still cannot shake one image from my mind. It’s a photo of Erin and Caden in deep embrace on the day of Erin’s marriage to Jason in 2006. There is a contentment in that photo that I think all humans strive for. And to know Jason lost these two people whom he loved so much is very tough to contemplate.

What still surprises me about this story: This story has probably generated more emotional debate than any I’ve been a part of in 18 years at Dateline. Because it involves the death of a child and a pregnant mother, and because the defendant is an honor roll high school student who has no memory of the crash, it’s nearly impossible to know what issue will resonate with those who see it. Even in my own home, people don’t see eye-to-eye about either the crash, or an appropriate punishment for Justine Winter.

Biggest challenge while doing this story: Convincing the Winter family to trust me and to trust Keith. I spent so many nights tossing and turning wondering if we were going to get the opportunity to talk to Justine. Her story was the piece of this puzzle that no one had ever heard, and to me, it was vital to get face-to-face with her to hear her story in her own words.

In a word, this is really a Dateline story about: Compassion.

Last but not least, in general, I wish: I wish both families peace. And I wish Justine to do something positive with her life once her sentence is served.