No special powers, just special ability

Dec. 08, 2012 @ 04:18 PM

They are not crusaders or superheros, nor are they fighter pilots or surgeons, but their profession is one of the few that requires wearing a mask — and they play a quiet but prominent role in the courtroom.

They are the verbatim court reporters.

Both of the Superior Judicial District 9 court reporters who cover Vance County set aside doctorate-level professions in exchange for a career in courtroom observation, notation and verbatim transcript making.

Both are also recognized as nationally certified merit-level accurate in their work, which is rare — perhaps very rare for one district to have two of them — among the state’s 30 numbered superior court judicial districts.

Annette Myers, assigned to the Vance County Superior Court last week, said that court reporting caught hold of her while it funded the completion of a doctorate level program in the field of education.

She completed the requirements of a doctor of education on top of education bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but it was the program training in court reporting that she chose to keep using.

“You learn a little bit about a lot of different things,” Myers said. “You have medical science, crime scene investigations, chemist reports, lots of medical terms.”

And there are the many other categories of learning,
anything and everything that gets involved with criminal and civil cases that become part of the discussions in court.

Richard Jester, whose work this month took him to other county courthouses in the district, said that he started as a court reporter for the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General program for three years starting in 1987. Then after working for a few years with the North Carolina court system, he studied to be an attorney.

Jester completed his doctor of jurisprudence, passed the bar exam, practiced law for a few years, then jumped at the chance to go back to court reporting when Judge Robert Hobgood advertised an opening with the ninth district.

A verbatim reporter uses a recording device held over the mouth like a mask, and they repeat all that is said in the courtroom, speaking onto a recording while not being heard by others in the courtroom.

“You just repeat the sound,” Myers said. “You can’t stop to think about what it means, but repeat it phonetically. You have to be good at research, looking things up later.”

Jester said that with court reporting, you are always in the learning game, and that is a place he really enjoys being.

“I have learned so much from listening to smart people talk,” Jester said. “I do very much enjoy being in the courtroom to listen and see everything that’s going on.”

Jester added he must admit that there is an element of boredom at times, like when a week includes daily, repetitious plea hearings. It is important, bored or not, to keep a disciplined ear on each word spoken, he said.

“With a court reporter, a vital ingredient is that you be able to hear,” he said. “My intent is to keep doing this as long as I can hear well.”

Myers said that when people talk too softly, a court reporter is responsible to actually stop proceedings and let a judge know if they can’t hear what is being said.

“The judges are very good about helping their court reporters,” she said.

Other distractions include emotional extremes, sometimes even humor, they added.

They have seen, and calmly repeated courtroom comments, during stunts like a feigned heart attack to delay a hearing.

There was even a defendant’s sudden bolt when a judge’s sentence bore revelations of a real imprisonment burden to bear.

“There was only one instance of that for me,” Myers said. “I was watching him, and he was looking edgy. As soon as the judge pronounced an active sentence, he took off.”

He got out of the courtroom, but he didn’t get very far after that, she added.

It can be hard not to laugh when someone says something “silly-wrong,” Jester said. “An attorney described assailants bursting in, shooting and there were victims who were killed but survived.”

Jester said the attorney thought he was saying something else — meant shot but survived — yet he repeated, “and those who were killed but survived.” Others in the courtroom showed signs of noticing the gaffe.

“It was difficult for me not to start laughing,” Jester said, and he had to repeat the gaffe for the recording, doing so with a straight face.

Myers said she could at least cover up a giggle or grimace. She’s the masked member of the courtroom, but others, including the judges, don’t have that luxury.

A difficult instance came with a murder case, “and murder cases are always just so serious,” she said.

It included discussion over a defendant’s responses to inkblot images, their psychological meanings that seemed to have a comedian’s imaginative flare.

“The attorney and psychologist were doing fine, and I could hide behind my mask, but other people in the courtroom couldn’t,” she said. “The judge, you could tell it was effecting him. He was finding it humorous, and you just can’t have that. He called for a break in the hearing.”

For Jester, the other extreme came in a murder case that included a bereaved mother’s words to her son’s killer: wanting him to truly move forward in life with the benefit of her forgiveness, wishing him to stand up in life, to finish school and live well.

Jester said that it was a moment couched in the intense reality of what had happened, unscripted and real, filled with the pain of what was lost.

“It was a very touching moment,” he said. “It was a Henderson case from some time ago. This mother was a truly exceptional person. Through all of that, I have to maintain a steady voice. Most of the time that’s easy to do.”
Not that day, he added.

Myers and Jester said that they put about two hours of work into transcribing for every hour in the courtroom listening and repeating what is said.

They complete transcripts at a rate set for state-use transcripts at $2.50 a page, with a due-date for completion set at 60-90 days after the hearing, paid to the verbatim court reporters on top of their salaries for courtroom work.

For private transcript orders, such as for civil cases, transcripts cost more if attorneys or clients want a rush job done: running possibly more than $10 per page for next-day service that keeps a court reporter up all night.

There are other court reporter kinds in contrast to voice writers who repeat and record court dialogue. One kind is the stenographer who types in the courtroom using a phonetic shorthand system.

Myers is a member, plus past officer at state and national levels, of the National Verbatim Reporters Association. She has served in the past as a leader in the testing process for trained voice writers.

At age 65, she said she could retire, but she’s not really thinking about that. Jester, 10 years younger than she, is definitely in for another 10 years at least, he said.

“For me it has been an education, and I have learned about the laws of this state,” Myers said. “After 26 years, I still have faith in the jury system. Sometimes I may disagree with a particular decision, but I believe in the system. I believe in the principles of it.”

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.