For Ralph LeRoy Menzies, life or death hangs on the accuracy of recorded words reported in a disputed court transcript, contends defense attorney Brooke Wells.
If Menzies' homicide trial had been recorded by video camera, the electronic tape would have captured proceedings with absolute accuracy, she said. There wouldn't be a dispute.Although Menzies was found guilty in February 1988 of murdering Maurine Hunsaker, the case remains controversial and unresolved because of errors in the court transcript.
Hunsaker, a Kearns mother of four, was kidnapped from her gas-attendant post the night of Feb. 23, 1986. Her body was discovered two days later in Big Cottonwood Canyon. She had been strangled and her throat had been slit.
Menzies, who has declared his innocence but has chosen to die by firing squad, sits on death row not knowing if he will be executed or receive a new trial.
Hunsaker's survivors share the uncertainty.
On the day Menzies was sentenced, Hunsaker's husband, Jim, told reporters he was "very much pleased with the verdict" and looked forward to continuing his life again, having the agonizing trial behind him.But until the court can determine whether the transcript errors are consequential enough to warrant a new trial, justice is on hold.
Wells argues that the transcript recorded by court reporter Tauni Lee is filled with so many errors that it would be impossible for an appellate court to review the death penalty case. In 900 pages of transcript, Wells contends she has discovered 600 substantive errors. Reviewing and attempting to correct the six-week trial transcript would cost thousands. The county refuses to pay.
"Our prosecutors didn't have anything to do with it," says Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom. "No one anticipated having an incompetent court reporter who didn't do her job. If a reasonable version of the trial can't be agreed upon, then it would be a problem on appeal because it could deny this defendant a right to review by the appellate courts."
A particularly critical error in the transcript was made by mistaking the word "parole office" for "patrol office," asserts Wells. During the trial, a witness for the prosecution made reference to a visit Menzies made to his "parole office," which tells the jury Menzies had a prior conviction. The judge had ruled that prior convictions could not be allowed in the record. It was a point of argument as a basis for mistrial.
"I'm not for putting court reporters out of business, but we have to avoid this kind of problem. A video record could be checked for accuracy."
If Utah courtrooms aren't equipped with cameras to record trials, then a backup audio and/or visual system should be installed to avoid error, she recommends.
Sharing the same concerns about accuracy, both Wells and Yocom favor extending the use of video cameras in the courtroom to include television cameras.
"I'd much rather have a videotape showing the public what I'm doing in a trial than rely on a reporter's interpretation. Sometimes news reports don't even sound like I was in the same courtroom with the reporter," said Wells.
Yocom says he's always favored television cameras in the courtroom to record trials. "Would you rather have an artist's rendition of D-Day or a film of it?"