Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Butler court records better

Live reporters show worth

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - After complaints about audio recordings' shortcomings - and inaccurate, incomplete transcripts that in-house staff produced from them - Butler County Common Pleas Court decided to try live court reporters.

Now, after a year with reporters taking live testimony in criminal felony cases, judges and attorneys say they wouldn't want to do business without them - and the judges hope to keep the program and possibly expand it, despite the county's budget crunch.

"We've laid the controversy to rest - and improved the system," said Gary Yates, chief probation officer and court administrator for the court's General Division.

Three live court reporters - two part-time, one full-time - began working in July 2002; their annual salaries total about $101,000. The change came after critics alleged it was inappropriate for judges' secretaries and other court personnel to transcribe recordings for extra cash.

"There's no question it's a better system," said Judge H.J. Bressler, the court's administrative judge. "We function better than we did."

While using live court reporters, whose stenograph machines record notes on paper as well as on computer disc, the courts continue to record proceedings on a compact-disc audio system. "So we've got the Cadillac of court-reporting at this time, because not only do we have court reporters, but we also have a backup recording system," Bressler said. "If I need something from a trial, they can generate it on an almost-immediate basis."

He said the judges are trying to find ways to pay for two more part-time court reporters.

All of this matters because "an incomplete transcript is useless," said Frank Schiavone, a Middletown attorney. "It appears the quality of the transcripts we've been getting is much better," he said, "and we can get transcripts the next day if we need them."

Schiavone said court reporters help control situations where several people are speaking at once. "Sometimes, we might 'step on' witnesses' answers, but with the court reporters there in the room, they can stop us," he said. Lawyers are also more likely to police themselves if they see a reporter in the courtroom taking notes, Schiavone said.

But the biggest problem with the previous system was that "there was only one source to record the testimony; no backup," Schiavone said. "If something went wrong, or someone coughed or made a noise, you couldn't tell what was said."

Linda Tuttle, 48, of Cincinnati's west side, , a court reporter since 1977, said she had a chance to listen to some of the recordings a couple years ago, when a law firm hired her to do a freelance court-reporting job for a civil case in Butler County.

She was surprised to learn that "the county's state-of-the-art recording system unfortunately still produces, at times, poor-quality recordings."

"Could you imagine, if you had a loved one in court - falsely accused or not - how you would feel with that record not being complete and going to a higher court?" Tuttle said. "That would be the ultimate travesty. ... If there's a bad transcript, justice wouldn't be done."

While there's no such thing as a perfect record of court proceedings, Tuttle said, she and her two part-time co-workers - assistant court reporters Jennifer Olivier and Tracy D.Greene - do their best to produce "a record that's as near as perfect as it can be."


E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com

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