Instant transcripts transform trials Technology captures courtroom testimony in blink of an eye

March 02, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Of the 26,177 words spoken during the opening statements of Ruthann Aron's lawyer and the subsequent questioning of two witnesses, "hit man" was used 11 times.

Two seconds after the words left attorney Barry Helfand's lips for the first time, they appeared on the screens of five laptop computers in the Montgomery County courtroom. A minute after that, the words were on a piece of paper in Helfand's hands.

Real-time transcription in Aron's murder-for-hire trial has captivated lawyers, courtroom staff and the presiding judge, Paul McGuckian, a first-time user.

"Sometimes I'm not sure I understood what a witness said," said McGuckian, who has a laptop on the bench near his left elbow. "This allows me to confirm or disabuse myself of something."

Real-time transcription, made popular during O. J. Simpson's murder trial, is not new in Maryland, where lawyers use it to take depositions. But the cost to rent the equipment and pay the two court reporters makes it a rarity in all but the most important or highly publicized cases.

The power of the technology is addictive and undeniable.

Late in the first day of testimony in the Aron trial, as Helfand cross-examined the witness who acted as a go-between for the defendant and an undercover police officer posing as a hit man, McGuckian interrupted.

"I was playing with my machine here," said McGuckian. "It stopped."

So did the courtroom drama (transcript page 145, lines 13-18) until a stenographer found that a lawyer had dislodged a cable with the wheel of his chair.

How it works

Here's how the technology, called LiveNote, works:

A court reporter sits near the jury and takes dictation on a stenotype machine. The machine is hooked to computer software that translates stenographic symbols into English. Two seconds later, the unedited translation appears on laptops. The raw copy also goes to an editor in the courtroom who proofreads, corrects it and prints it out.

Lisa DiMonte, owner of L. A. D. Reporting Co. of Silver Spring, the company that is transcribing the Aron trial using LiveNote, said the cost of the LiveNote computer program for a laptop is $595 and that an additional fee of $250 is charged per day for the laptop and paper printout service.

In the Aron trial, McGuckian, two of the defense lawyers and two court reporters have the laptops. The prosecution is buying a copy, as are members of the news media, at 75 cents a page.

Cost depends on how many decide to subscribe to the system during a trial and how they want the information delivered. Aside from printouts and laptop computers, transcripts can be synchronized on videotape, recorded on compact disc or delivered by modem to a computer off-site.

Aron's four-lawyer defense team never gave a second thought to the cost of hiring L. A. D. Reporting Co.

"It's not inexpensive," acknowledged Erik Bolog, another of Aron's attorneys. "A case has to warrant it. But Mrs. Aron's life is at stake and it is certainly money well spent."

Aron, 55, has pleaded not criminally responsible to charges she hired a hit man to kill her husband and a Baltimore lawyer who testified against her in a civil case. The maximum penalty for solicitation to commit murder is life in prison.

System can save money

Helfand estimated that being able to give his medical experts copies of a real-time transcript to keep them up on the opposing side's testimony instead of having them wait in the courtroom to testify will save him $12,000 a day. He would not say how much he is paying for the service.

Bolog said the transcript saves him from the distraction of taking longhand notes on a witness's statements and his rebuttal points while trying to keep up with the continuing testimony.

"We can cross-examine with the script in front of us instead of saying, 'Didn't you say five minutes ago, and I'm paraphrasing ' It's exact," Bolog said.

McGuckian also likes the freedom from note-taking and a feature in the system that allows him to flag portions of testimony for review or printout.

"From a judge's standpoint you could save a lot of reading of transcript or the taking of a lot of notes," he said.

LiveNote is less cumbersome than the court's central taping system, which is used to record what is said in all county circuit courtrooms.

If a dispute arises under that system and playback is required, the court clerk has to call the technical services staff and have the tape stopped, rewound and played back through the courtroom sound system.

But it takes discipline to make LiveNote work, said DiMonte.

It takes "a higher degree of mental gymnastics from the court reporter" who is taking dictation, DiMonte said. Homonyms (words that sound the same but are different, such as two, to and too), technical terms and geographic locations can cause problems for the court reporter who is writing phonetically.

Trial participants can't mumble or have a machine-gun delivery. Lawyers must provide accurate lists of witnesses' names and any other words specific to the case for the software's internal dictionary. Judges have to prevent adversaries from talking over each other.

It comes together on the laptop screens and on the sheets of paper that get passed from DiMonte to the defense lawyers.

At the end of the day, Helfand's team gets a bound volume with an index that spells out the number of words used, where a specific word appears each time in the transcript and, if they want, exactly what time the word was said.

"It's addictive," said Lori Byrd, a stenographer who is taking down every word of the Aron trial. "Once a judge has used real time, they don't want to go back."

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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