New computers recording trials allow instant review of testimony

August 29, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

It helps disabled people and non-English speakers participate in court more easily and can help judges and juries follow complicated trials more precisely. It also gives lawyers a tool they can use to trip up witnesses.

Helps lawyers? This is a good thing?

Sure, says Alfred A. Betz. Mr. Betz is the chief executive of Betz & Strouse Inc., the area's biggest court reporting firm.

He says technology is transforming the most oft-overlooked job in the courtroom, as his firm moves toward transcription methods that can produce a record in real time, instead of the week to 10 days traditional methods take.

Mr. Betz's firm, which has 17 court reporters in Baltimore and Washington-area offices, has been churning out documents at a faster and faster pace since first buying computers in 1977.

"If you had a typist producing at 11 pages an hour, that was a lot," Mr. Betz said. "Now we're doing hundreds of pages an hour."

Two innovations in the last three years have speeded the process considerably.

The first was a software innovation that allowed court reporters to type the transcript in shorthand that could be instantaneously translated into standard English and appear immediately on a courtroom monitor or a laptop computer screen.

Using the same technology as closed-captioned TV programming, it let deaf people sit on juries without translators.

"A lot of this developed with the ADA in mind," said Mr. Betz, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. "There used to be a lot of sign-language interpretation, [and] there are certain times when this system is really better."

The newest innovation is a program called Caseview, produced by an Illinois firm, which also instantly translates shorthand and feeds the English translation into a monitor feed or a computer. The big difference from the earlier programs: Caseview users can scroll back to catch up on what they missed, or didn't understand, a minute earlier. Previous real-time technology didn't let a user do that, Mr. Betz said, because scrolling back would interrupt the input of new material.

Both programs let users print out the transcript right after the hearing, much sooner than older methods made possible.

Mr. Betz said the new system allows witnesses and lawyers to catch mistakes faster, a benefit in trials that turn on scientific issues, when unfamiliar technical lingo can trip up court reporters.

Technology also lets lawyers trap shifty witnesses, and judges trap evasive lawyers, by providing a tool to settle disputes about who said what when -- right on the spot.

"The record is right there," Betz & Strouse client service director B. Scott Gray said. "There's no room for argument."

But some lawyers familiar with the systems say they still don't use them much.

"My first impression is that it's like a lot of computer things," said Towson attorney Russ Pope, who has seen real-time systems in action but hasn't used them. "You can get a lot of features you never really use. But just like the [personal computer], the motivation is that there's a real use for it, even if it's not very broad at the time it's introduced."

One possible reason: Unlike technology revolutions in other fields, the new court reporting technology doesn't save its users money.

Mr. Betz said real-time transcription costs about 40 percent more than traditional methods, and Caseview, about 60 percent more.

Another reason the technology is still taking off slowly is that relatively few court reporters know how to use it.

Mr. Betz said a study by the National Court Reporters Association this year found only 300 reporters in the nation who use real-time technology. Betz & Strouse didn't use Caseview, available for more than a year, until last month.

The new technologies "are usually used when it's a technical case, when there are [foreign-language] interpreters involved, and usually it's used in huge litigation involving tens of millions of dollars," Mr. Betz said.

"The stakes are very high, and people need to know exactly what was said."

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