Digital devices no match for court stenographers

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READING, Pa -- A city woman tells a Berks County jury that she was at a party with the defendant, a suspect in a murder trial, at the same time the victim was killed in the streets of Reading.

The prosecutor objects, arguing that the defense did not follow court procedures and provide notification of an alibi.

But the defense attorney continues questioning.

Everyone is talking at once.

That is when the court stenographer throws up her hands and says: "Stop."

"When the defendant is talking and the prosecutor is talking, I need everyone to stop and repeat what they said," said Rebecca Bruce, one of 19 county court stenographers. "If I pay too much attention to what is being said I can't get the testimony down. I really have to focus."

During hard economic times some courts are replacing stenographers with digital recording devices, but President Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl said there are no plans to do so in Berks.

"There is nothing better than a court stenographer to provide an accurate record for the court," Judge Schmehl said. "We have highly skilled court reporters."

In Berks, digital recordings are used only in custody hearings.

Judge Schmehl said using digital recording devices may not result in savings, but he plans a review to determine if the devices could be used in other minor proceedings. Personnel costs for the court reporters department are budgeted at $2 million this year.

Court Administrator Stephen A. Weber said the board of judges prefers using stenographers to the recording systems.

"Our stenographers produce quality work," Mr. Weber said. "The board of judges feels very comfortable with our stenographers."

James Blair, chief court reporter, said stenographers are better than a digital recorder because they get the testimony accurate.

"A person is obligated to stop the proceedings if the testimony is getting jumbled," she said. "The stenographer asks people to repeat what they said."

Mr. Blair said he decided to become a court reporter after graduating from Gettysburg College in 1972.

"I was looking for a job in psychology when I heard about court reporting," he said.

He then took a course in stenography and landed a job in Berks, where he has worked for 36 years.

"You must hang on every word," he said. "It's a high-pressure job."

Court reporters are required to record the proper names of lawyers and witnesses.

"It can be quite difficult to get it all down if 10 people are taking a guilty plea at the same time," Mr. Blair said. "Your job is to make a record so later it can be transcribed if necessary.

"If people are talking too fast, you must tell them to slow down. Judges rely on you to get every word."

Judges use transcripts to write their opinions in cases appealed to higher courts, and attorneys use transcripts to prepare their briefs.

Court reporter Shelly Hirneisen decided to take a class in court reporting after she saw an article about the profession in Philadelphia in the late 1970s.

"I took a course and loved it," she said.

Ms. Hirneisen worked in Berks courts for 16 years, then as a freelancer for 16 years before returning to Berks in May.

"I am glad to be back," she said. "It's the right thing."

About 12 years ago county court officials studied replacing the stenographers with digital recorders.

"We looked at replacing all of the stenographers with recording devices but they are just not reliable," said Judge Scott D. Keller, who was president judge at the time. "We were never satisfied that the video recording devices were accurate. The testimony was unintelligible. In criminal trials it's so important that we have every word accurate."

Judge Keller said the digital equipment is useful in hearings before masters because they are rarely transcribed. (A master is an attorney appointed by the court to preside over family matters in preliminary proceedings.)

Family court uses a digital recording system that replaced a cassette system in 2006 for support hearings before masters, said Lisa Siciliano, deputy family court administrator.

She said the custody support hearing master uses a digital recording system with a compact disc as a backup.

"Most of the cases don't go to hearings," Ms. Siciliano said.

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