By Thomas Scheffey
This fall, Connecticut’s Judicial Branch has taken long-awaited steps which make the often mystifying work of trial and appellate courts easier – and cheaper – for people to understand.
As of Nov. 1, 2018, audio recordings of any public civil or criminal trial can be purchased for $20, in MP3 format on a compact disc. That’s about a 95 per cent price cut from the cost of buying a day of trial in the official paper transcript format. Before Nov. 1, that was the only trial “record” people could buy.
Trials before that date, and trials such as juvenile hearings that are not open to the public, are the exceptions. So far, in the first six weeks of this initiative, the public has been ordering audio recordings of trials at the rate of about one a day.
Some 47 days after the new policy was announced, Judicial Branch spokesperson Melissa Farley reported 47 requests. Of those, she said, “42 have been granted and 5 have been denied.” Only one was denial due to a proceeding being closed to the public. The other four denied requests were for trial dates that preceded Nov. 1, the program’s starting date.
Judicial officials say the discs will be mailed within seven days of receiving the request, or make them available for pickup in Wethersfield, at the Centralized Infractions Bureau.
Although this delay makes the new offerings too slow for breaking news coverage, journalists, historians, scholars and trial lawyers are reporting that this new way to obtain “the record” promises a big step forward in Judicial Branch openness.
Lincoln “Link” Woodard, of Hartford’s Walsh Woodard, is currently president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers’ Association. He sees inexpensive, audio recordings of trials as significant benefit. “In the past, if there’s a case I hear about through the press or through my colleagues and it’s a good result or similar facts to a case I have, I’ve ordered the transcript in the past, just to see how the lawyer conducted the work. It would be great to get the audio version – in some ways it’s better.”
The audio recording is the same official taping made by court monitors, which is used to transcribe the official court trial transcript in written form. Transcripts aren’t typed up unless someone requests it.
Depending how quickly they’re required, transcripts can cost as much as $10 per page. (If a “no rush” regular $3 page is sold a second time, it’s $1.75, which is the least expensive rate.) Transcript costs often shock clients. “It typically costs between $500 to $1,000 per day of trial,” said Darien family lawyer Gaetano Ferro, who specializes in divorces of the rich and famous.
David DesRoches, a reporter at Hartford-based WNPR, said the audio discs could provide insightful glimpses of authentic moments in court. “Hearing someone’s voice – the tone, the breathing, the emotion – conveys more accurate information than any court transcript,” he said.
Radio reporting and podcasts are well suited for in-depth reporting on complicated court stories. For example, the popular “Serial” program on National Public Radio relies on trial recordings to lend immediacy and authenticity. Stamford trial and appellate lawyer Paul Slager, of Silver, Golub & Teitell, said he has been recommending Serial to friends, because of what it reveals about the courts. “The latest season of Serial, where there are so many excerpts of the Cleveland city courtroom, was really eye-opening. It’s such an amazing insight into what goes on in the courtroom. The audio is such a huge part of it, when you hear the way the judges and the lawyers interact with the accused, it’s really remarkable. It gives a color and depth that you would never pick up in a dry transcript.”
Slager said access to trial recordings, at $20 a day, is “a terrific initiative, because anything that encourages transparency of our justice system in Connecticut is very positive.” Slager added, “I think there could be educational benefits from hearing real cross-examination, real opening statements and closing arguments.”
When a jury is busy deliberating and asks to review something from the trial, the jurors aren’t given a written transcript, Slager noted. Instead, jurors return to the courtroom, and the taped testimony is replayed.
Hearing the actual voices has richer evidentiary value, Slager said. “In my opinion, I think the audio is the best evidence, because you hear the inflections of the voice, and it brings back the body language of the witness. It’s part of the jury’s job to assess the credibility of witnesses, and it’s much easier to do that when you hear intonations of voice, and expression and emphasis that an audio recording could offer, but a dry transcript simply would not.”
Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll, commenting on the $20 CD initiative for trial recordings, suggested that faster, cheaper versions may become available in the near future.
“We have been working for some time on this initiative and had hoped to be able to provide the audio to the requester electronically,” said Carroll. “That is still our goal, but, in the meantime, we will be burning the audio file onto a CD.”
Earlier this fall, the Judicial Branch made another step forward when it began posting digital recordings of Supreme Court oral arguments on the Judicial Branch website, for listening or downloading.
In the Media/Public Resources section in the Supreme Court page, a dropdown menu links to “Oral Arguments Audio,” going back to Oct. 9.
Not all arguments are available, but the selection is much better than the occasional coverage of Supreme Court arguments on the state-run cable news channel, CT-N.
Significantly, the Supreme Court argument audio is available shortly after the parties argue, normally the same day. This is a boon to lawyers, litigants, members of the public and the press following the case. In addition, clicking on the blue docket number opens up the appellate docket for that case, which contains links to the appellate briefs in readable and downloadable PDF format.
These changes come almost a decade after a court reform committee — headed by former Supreme Court Associate Justice Joette Katz — issued a lengthy report on court stenographers and monitors, and recommended a shift from ink and paper to digital court reporting.
In one sense, Nov. 1 marked a watershed change in how “the record” exists in Connecticut courts, with the public, for the first time, being able to take advantage of the speed, accuracy and economy of 20th and 21st century technological advances.
Legal affairs writer Thomas Scheffey is a member of CFOG’s Board of Directors.