Thursday, January 10, 2008

What Happened to Court Reporter?

Jimmy Dickens is making big news in Alabama these days. But most Alabamians probably cannot place the name.

I couldn't place it until I did a little research the other day. Turns out Jimmy Dickens probably is making more news in death than he ever did in life.

The ongoing imprisonment of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman remains a major story in Alabama. And it has become a central focus in the unfolding national story of a Bush Justice Department that appears to have gone wildly off track.

Attention has focused in recent days on the trial transcript--or rather the lack thereof--in the Siegelman case. Even the Montgomery Advertiser pulled its head out of the sand long enough to opine that Siegelman should be released pending appeal--if for no other reason than that the trial transcript still is not completed.

Actually, there are numerous reasons that Siegelman should be released pending appeal, going way beyond the absent trial transcript. But that would require taking a close and critical look at Judge Mark Fuller's recent memorandum opinion, the one saying Siegelman should remain in prison. The mainstream Alabama press is not about to scrutinize Fuller's amateurish handiwork. So the mainstreamers have focused on the transcript.

And that is where Jimmy Dickens comes in.

Recent press reports have noted that one reason for the transcript delay was the death of the original court reporter in the Siegelman case. Most of the recent stories I've seen have not mentioned the court reporter's name.

His name was Jimmy Dickens. And why has he posthumously become such a news item? Well, the timeline in the Siegelman case has gone from ridiculous to absurd.

Siegelman was convicted on June 29, 2006. He was sentenced and immediately sent to federal prison on June 26, 2007. Here it is January 10, 2008, and we still have no trial transcript. And Siegelman's attorneys cannot prepare an appeal without a transcript.

Thanks to Scott Horton, of Harper', we know that it is the trial judge's responsibility to ensure that a transcript is completed in a timely fashion. The trial judge, of course, was Mark Fuller. But Alabama's mainstream press evidently would rather blame a dead man than turn a white-hot spotlight on Judge Fuller.

And that's how Jimmy Dickens, God rest his soul, came to be a major news item.

All of which raises this question: Who was Jimmy Dickens and how did he die?

From doing some research on the Web, I could find out very little about Mr. Dickens, who was 59 at the time of his death.

Here is an obituary from the August 26, 2007, issue of the Montgomery Advertiser. Mr. Dickens died on August 24. No indication as to cause of death. Certainly sounds like he was a fine fellow--an Air Force veteran, a Methodist, a husband, a father to three sons, a grandfather to six. One of his sons evidently is a physician.

Here is a photo from 2005 when Mr. Dickens probably was 57 years old. He is second from left, immediately to Mark Fuller's left. He and the judge appear to be on good terms. Mr. Dickens looks hale and hearty at this point.

Thinking about Mr. Dickens brought a number of questions to mind:

* If Mr. Dickens became seriously ill at some point from June 2006 until August 2007, a span of 14 months, why didn't Fuller get another court reporter going on the transcript?

* If Mr. Dickens had become seriously ill during that time, you would think that would be a news story worth reporting. After all, he was court reporter for one of the biggest trials in Alabama history. But I've seen no evidence that it was reported.

* If Dickens died unexpectedly in August 2007, why didn't he already have the transcript completed? I don't pretend to be an expert on the work of court reporters, but couldn't a transcript be completed in 14 months? Does it usually take longer than that?

I posed some of these questions to a source of mine in the legal community, and I received some interesting answers. Turns out the production of a trial transcript can be more complex than the average layperson might imagine. It's a process filled with many variables. We will take a look at some of those variables in an upcoming post.

As for the Siegelman case, we know the new court reporter recently received an extension of time to complete the transcript. It will be at least another two months or so before the transcript is completed.

That means Jimmy Dickens will remain in the news for a while.


Anonymous said...

do you happen to know what sort of mechanism was used to do the trial reporting: spoken voice recorder, punchpad, or handwritten shorthand? Every courtroom has it’s own method, I’ve found, but most are done in such a way that someone else can transcribe if need be — for obvious reasons, you need back-up in case of a situation like this where the court reporter passes away. I haven’t been able to find any particular information on the method used there, and wondered if there had been in local reporting on that?

legalschnauzer said...

That's a good question, and I don't know the answer. I'm going to do another post on this subject and see if we can shine some light. Have noticed a good deal of interest in court report from comments on other blogs.

Anonymous said...

Had he been infirm before or during this trial, my cynicism tells me that Republicans would have picked Mr. Dickens for this particular trial.

Court people tend to be thoughtful to other fellow court people, especially recorders since recorders tend to be paid when they finish their job they'd be slow to give it to another recorder to finish.

Ones I know work for companies which oversee the job reception, hours, pay, taxes, insurance, etc.

I bet there are a few people to reach yet.

It's the main witness that makes this case most suspicious, the long waits and minimal responses add more suspicion.

Anonymous said...

I am a court reporter and will tell you that it takes longer to produce a transcript than most people realize. I am not familiar with how long this trial lasted or what type reporter he was (stenotype or stenomask). I am a stenomask reporter and will tell you that for every hour of testimony, it takes approximately three hours to type it. Also, for every hour of testimony, it is approximately 40 pages of a transcript. This should give you a little more insight on the time involved to produce a transcript. For a high profile case such as this seems to be, it could take a couple of months to finish the transcript, and that would be with a lot of help from support staff. Since the reporter in this case died, in my opinion, it is up to the Judge and his assistant/staff to get this transcript prepared, which brings another problem into the mix. If the person transcribing the testimony is unable to understand testimony on the audio file/steno file, then that could be a cause for a mistrial in the case. I think the attorney waiting to file the appeal should have already been raising such a stink about having waited so long for a transcript. This could end up in a mistrial even without the testimony being transcribed. Will have to try and keep up with what's going on with this case. Thanks for sharing this with us all.

Anonymous said...

As an official court reporter for over 20 years, I will say that it is sometimes 6 months before the transcript order is placed. Most official court reporters require the ordering party to pay for the transcript up front. (In this case, I understand that the family of the deceased had to return the money for this transcript.) Unfortunately, Alabama has only required certification for court reporters for less than a half dozen years, so many court reporters practicing in our courts are not the best. Perhaps they had a hard time finding a court reporter willing to take over the thankless task of transcribing another reporter's notes. Their pay (usually by the page) would bound to drop because it would take much longer to transcribe a stranger's notes. Perhaps the court reporter who took over this job is less skilled. It's also another matter entirely to analyze another person's record keeping and make a solid transcript from it. The court could have tried to find more of an expert court reporter, one skilled in forensic interpretation of the many varied shorthand symbols that other court reporters might use. (It's kind of like having a Spanish-speaking interpreter who doesn't understand the specific dialect he is being asked to interpret.) Just some thoughts as to why it may have taken so long to get the transcript done.