Utah defense attorney Brooke Wells has spent nearly four weeks with a court reporter in California poring over a flawed court transcript.
The severity of inaccuracies in the transcript may provide cause for convicted murderer Ralph LeRoy Menzies to receive a new trial and possibly escape the death penalty.In a hearing scheduled for Monday, Wells will report the extent of the transcript errors to 3rd District Judge Raymond S. Uno. The judge will decide if the transcript is so riddled with substantive errors that the appellate court could not give the capital case a fair review.
Menzies was found guilty in 1988 of murdering Maurine Hunsaker. Hunsaker, mother of four, was kidnapped while working as a gas station attendant 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.
Prosecutors agree that the transcript is flawed. But they contend the errors don't justify a mistrial.
Citing at least 338 errors in one 57-page transcript portion, Wells insists the problems are severe. It has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars for Wells to meet with the court reporter, Tauni Lee, who has moved to California, to attempt to remedy the problems.
To ensure this kind of mistake in court records doesn't occur again, Wells has participated as a member of the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century to study and recommend new technology for Utah's courtrooms.
If a video camera had been used to record the murder trial - or if the courtroom had a backup audio system, error could have been avoided, Wells said.
Randy Dryer was chairman of the committee that studied technologies being used in courtrooms in other states. In Kentucky courtrooms, for instance, video cameras have replaced court reporters in providing the official court record.
The Menzies case provides a catalyst for public debate over the issue of video cameras vs. the use of court reporters, said Dryer.
"Traditionally, court reporters in Utah have been very well-trained and accurate. Problems with transcripts have been rare.
"The question is: Is it worth using another technology like video to eliminate infrequent but troublesome occurrences such as in the Menzies case?"
The justice commission is recommending pilot programs to evaluate videotape against "real-time computer-aided transcription " by court reporters. "Real-time" means a typed transcript could be provided within minutes.
Until a decision is reached as to whether cameras or humans will record justice, the commission recommends that no new court reporters be hired.
Naturally, the possibility of cameras replacing people is threatening to court reporters.
But Dryer said reporters welcome the comparison because they are confident written transcription is superior to videotape. The commission does not recommend one method over the other.
Those who support the use of video cameras contend it provides a more complete and accurate record because it adds the visual and audio components. Mechanical malfunction is extremely rare and human error is eliminated, said Dryer.
"Video technology is reliable. The purpose of the pilot programs, therefore, is for judges and attorneys to choose which method they prefer."
In the long run, new technology will save taxpayers money by reducing the number of staff and space required for storing documents.
Video arraignments could save a tremendous amount of money and would increase safety, said Dryer. "Courts spend over $1 million annually in security. It simply does not make sense to transport a prisoner from Draper to a courtroom in Logan when you can do it easily through the use of cameras connecting the jail and courtroom," said Dryer.
The commission's recommendations will be presented to the public in a series of hearings in the spring.
- Thompson is on a leave from the newspaper on a national State Justice Institute fellowship to cover the "Doing Utah Justice" project.
Recommended changes in court technology
- Test videotape cameras vs. computer-aided transcription for court records.
- Install video cameras in jails and courtrooms to arraign prisoners.
- Place self-serve touch-screen computers in small-claims courts.
- Provide video conferencing from Salt Lake City to courts in outside area.
- Transfer documents to computer for access by attorneys, government and media.
- Arrange payment of fines and fees with credit card by phone.
- Encourage electronic filing of documents.
- Strive for an essentially "paperless" court system in next decade.