Court Reporter Dies Before Finishing Transcript
Date 2014/6/16 7:40:59 | Topic: News
|SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - A tragic loss for one family has inserted a bit of uncertainty in the region’s most high-profile criminal case.|
Jeannette Freeman, 74, of Springfield, died at her home recently. Freeman, who was deeply involved in the community over her years in Springfield, was also one of the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office’s go-to court reporters.
Most recently, prosecutors hired her to take notes in the preliminary hearing for Craig Wood, who is accused of kidnapping and killing 10-year-old Hailey Owens. The case has the potential to rise to death penalty status.
Prosecutors said Tuesday they’re not yet sure if Freeman completed the transcript of the hearing, and while that could create some objection from the defense, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Todd Myers said there shouldn’t be any legal concern.
“We’re not going to have to redo the preliminary hearing,” he said, noting that Freeman also made an audio recording of the hearing.
But Linda Dattilo, executive director for the Missouri Court Reporters Association, said a tape is no substitute for a court reporter for ensuring court proceedings are heard and reported properly.
“Our industry is replete with horror stories of poor recordings, non-recordings and electronic media problems,” Dattilo said.
“Digital recording picks up every cough, every rattle of papers as attorneys go through them, every snap of gum, even sounds from out in the hallway or in the gallery. It doesn’t pick it up when attorneys walk away from the front of the room or the mic and ask a question while their backs are turned.”
Dattilo said another certified court reporter can transcribe a reporter’s notes, if necessary, but in the Craig Wood case there’s a bit of a twist — Freeman took written notes, using shorthand.
Dattilo, who knew Freeman professionally after meeting her many years ago, was unaware Freeman still used shorthand. Court reporters typically use a stenotype machine to take notes.
“Wow. She might be the only one in the state using shorthand,” Dattilo said. “There might not be anyone who can read her notes.”
Judge Dan Conklin, who is scheduled to preside over Wood’s arraignment this week, said a problem with the transcript wouldn’t put the case in jeopardy, but could cause it to be sent back for another preliminary hearing.
However, he said he’s hopeful the situation will be worked out before it comes to that.
Attorney Dean Price, who has previously defended death penalty cases, agreed to speak in general about such cases.
He said there are two important reasons a record of a preliminary hearing in a death penalty case is required.
One is because these cases come under “such enormous scrutiny” that reviewing courts would want to make sure everything was done correctly. The second is that the record of testimony might become more important if a witness “should somehow become unavailable.”
He said that need for a transcript could cause the preliminary hearing to be held again.
“I’m not going to go out on a limb and say it would have to be ordered,” Price said. “But my expectation is that the lawyer is going to ask.”
Attempts to reach Patrick Berrigan, the defense attorney in the case, were unsuccessful.
Myers stressed the existence of the audio recording in addition to Freeman’s shorthand notes.
Dattilo said she believed the audio recording could be used to make a transcript.
Freeman’s reliability led the prosecutor’s office to regularly call on her when needed.
“She was a very accomplished lady who was very professional and always produced a quality transcript of hearings or depositions she would be involved with,” Myers said. “Over time, I learned she was also a kind lady and a joy to work with.”
Myers said prosecutors have relied on Freeman in numerous cases and she always produced good work.
Myers also said Freeman is the only court reporter he knew of still using shorthand.
An online obituary for Freeman says she worked as a court reporter for 55 years and owned Freeman and Associates Court Reporting.
The obituary says she died of natural causes.
Kenneth L. Chumbley, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, said Freeman was a longtime member of the church.
“She was a very active member here, always faithful, always in church,” Chumbley said. “She was a kind woman who always had a smile on her face.”
News-Leader reporter Jess Rollins contributed to this report.
Isn’t audio recording good enough?
When asked, Linda Dattilo, executive director for the Missouri Court Reporters Association, told the News-Leader there is no substitute for a court reporter.
“We can say, excuse me, we didn’t hear that or understand what was said. If someone has a coughing fit or talks softly or walks away asking a question with his back to us, we can stop and remind them that we can’t or didn’t hear something,” Dattilo said.
She said digital audio recordings can sometimes be inaudible “because digital gives the same weight to the sound of a cough, gum snaps, paper rattling as it does to a person speaking, and you cannot make out on the tape what is missing.”
And, in a more extreme example, Dattilo recalled the uproar caused by the infamous “18 minutes of missing tape” during the Watergate scandal.
“Yes, tape recordings can be manipulated; there can be microphones out in the courtroom that no one knows about; and they can be erased, accidentally or on purpose.”
Dattilo noted court reporters are certified by the state of Missouri and their work is preserved for review by higher courts.
“Having a live person there ensures the integrity of the ultimate transcript of the proceedings.”