Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Mystery of the Siegelman Court Reporter

Speaking of matters that 60 Minutes was not able to include in its story Sunday night, what about the case of the missing transcript?

We posted a few weeks back about the transcript and the late Jimmy Dickens, who was the court reporter for the Siegelman case.

When I wrote this post, I must confess that the paranoid, conspiracy-minded part of me was in overdrive. But at the last minute, I toned the post down and held off on writing what I really was thinking.

Since then, I've discovered--from reading comments on a number of blogs-- that quite a few folks are thinking the same thing I was thinking. Most recently I noticed this on a post and comments at the always interesting firedoglake.

Here is what folks are asking: What caused the death of Jimmy Dickens? Did he die of natural causes?

Those folks clearly are wondering what I was wondering when I wrote the original post on Mr. Dickens and the mystery transcript: Is it possible that Mr. Dickens refused to tamper with the transcript and wound up being killed because of it?

Now perhaps I watched too many Barnaby Jones episodes in my youth. But evidence strongly suggests that a certain faction of the modern Republican Party can play awfully rough. We also know that, when under duress, they can turn on folks who are pretty much in their inner circle.

I know nothing about Jimmy Dickens' politics. But from reading his obituary, he sure sounds like an upstanding guy. Here is the obituary, and as far as I know, it's the only thing that has been written about his passing--even though he was a central figure in one of the nation's most controversial criminal cases:

DICKENS, Sr., James Ray­mond, 59, a resident of Mont­gomery, Alabama, died Fri­day, August 24, 2007. Funeral services will be held on Sun­day, August 26, 2007 at 2:00 P.M. from Frazer United Meth­odist Church with Dr. John Ed Mathison officiating. Burial will follow in Alabama Heri­tage Cemetery. Mr. Dickens served in the United States AirForce from 1968 until 1972. He was a Court Reporter for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Ala­bama. He is survived by his wife, Pamela Duncan Dick­ens; three sons, Dr. Frank Eric Dickens (Peggy), Joel Scott Dickens (Jane), James Ray­mond Dickens, Jr. (Becky); six grandchildren, Michael James Dickens, Hayden Scott Dickens, Caroline Chappell Dickens, Sean Patrick Dick­ens, Elizabeth Ann Dickens, and Katherine Elizabeth Dick­ens; two brothers, Danny Dickens (Vicki) and Bob Dick­ens (Jerri). Visitation will beheld Sunday, August 26, 2007,from 1:00 P.M. until 2:00 P.M. at the church.
Funeral Home: GREENWOOD & SERENITYPublication Date: 08/26/2007

Mr. Dickens certainly sounds like the kind of guy you would enjoy having as a neighbor, and my condolences go out to his family. He evidently was a member of Frazer United Methodist Church in Montgomery, which I'm guessing is a pretty large congregation. From checking the Web, it looks like one of his sons, Dr. Frank Dickens is an OB/GYN in Montgomery.

More than likely, Mr. Dickens died of natural causes. But I guess my curiosity about the transcript in general, and Mr. Dickens in particular, is driven by own experiences in court.

I don't fully understand all the procedures surrounding a transcript, although a lawyer source has filled me in some and I hope to post about that soon. But as a layperson, it seems impossible to overstate the importance of a transcript in any legal proceeding. And the keeper of that all-important official record is the court reporter.

Here's an example of just how important a court reporter can be: When I was the victim of a crime (criminal trespass) and sought to have it prosecuted--starting the legal sojourn that led to this blog--a court reporter was present for the case (which is unusual, I understand, in district court). My wife and I were wrongfully kept outside the courtroom for much of the proceedings, so when the judge found my troublesome neighbor "not guilty" (a decision which led to the lawsuit against me) we had no idea what that was based on.

But my wife and I got a copy of the transcript, and that's when we first began to understand how corrupt Alabama state courts are. You might say the scales began to fall from our eyes. The transcript revealed--and I'm not joking--that the defendant had admitted to committing the crime and still was found not guilty!

Without a court reporter, I never would have known that. Later in my case, after my neighbor had sued me for malicious prosecution, I employed a court reporter to take the neighbor's deposition. (That's expensive, by the way; set us back $900.) But it yielded some most interesting information, much of which you will read later on this blog.

For example, in that deposition I caught an individual making a statement that was contradictory to a statement I had taped another neighbor making regarding a certain issue in the case. This statement clearly shows that a motion that had been filed in the case was fraudulent and was designed to scare me into some kind of settlement. Because the U.S. mails were used to send the motion, this individual clearly committed a federal crime-honest-services mail fraud. This is one of numerous facts that U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, Northern District of Alabama, is trying to keep under wraps.

Anyway, you can see how important court reporters can be and why they hold a special place in my heart. My impression is that, in general, court reporters are noble people.

Unfortunately, I've also learned that our justice system is filled with many less-than-noble people. And many of those folks outrank court reporters.

It's not hard at all for me to imagine someone pressuring a court reporter to alter a transcript just enough--and it probably wouldn't take much in many cases--to ensure that a trial-court judgment held up on appeal. And that could ensure that someone like Don Siegelman stayed in prison for a very long time.

How would someone accomplish this, say if we were writing a John Grisham novel? Well, I don't know. I welcome any input from readers who are familiar with, or curious about, court reporting.


Anonymous said...

I'm a freelance court reporter working in NY/CT/NJ. In my opinion, no court reporter, official or freelance, would be tempted to change a transcript. Our reputations are on the line. No amount of money is enough. Now, if the judge uses tape recorders (as opposed to a live certified shorthand reporter) and some typist sitting in their house in jammies is transcribing the tapes, then who knows who'd be tempted to do that. But a certified shorthand reporter, I say no, none of us care about any case or lawyer or witness remotely enough to even consider sacrificing our career.

Anonymous said...

I am also a court reporter and have just a couple of comments. First, as stated previously by another reporter, no court reporter would change a transcript, not for an attorney or for a judge for that matter. Court reporters can be barred from reporting and lose their license for acts such as this, let alone, the lawsuits that would be filed against them.

Now, as to this excerpt:

"Robert A. Kezelis, of Capitol Hill Blue, also shined light on the matter, noting that modern technology should make production of a transcript relatively simple, even in circumstances such as those in the Siegelman case:

With today's modern technology, the death of a court reporter makes no difference. The computer readout of the court reporter's machine is easily downloaded to any PC and the spell-checking and name correction can be done in a day. Perhaps two. Not months. Not many months."

He might have shined a light, but it wasn't a very bright one! I completely disagree with Mr. Kezelis. I'm not sure what reporters he has been talking to, but you DON'T just EASILY DOWNLOAD AND SPELLCHECK AND THAT'S IT! There is sooo much more to a transcript than that. For a lengthy trial, it is not unheard of for a reporter transcribing with no support team to take up to two months to produce a transcript. In most courts, that I'm aware, normally delivery of a transcript is a month anyway.

Now, a transcript can be done in a day IF the court reporter was realtime material and had other support persons helping. Look at the Simpson trial; there were two reporters doing it realtime and had to swap out working.

To sum it up: Court reporters are not machines, they are humans (although attorneys and others sometimes don't beleive that). Transcript CANNOT just be dumped in the computer and you change a few things and *POOF* it's done. Mr. Kezelis really needs to do a little more investigation into the production of a transcript before he speaks about what he does not know.

Unknown said...

This was my fiancé court case, the team did a good job, but the electrical current killed hos vein and he die.

Florida Court Reporter