I previously made both an offer and a challenge to readers of this august blog to investigate a case and write it up as a post herein. Five people have taken me up on the offer and/or the challenge so far. Each asks that I keep their name anonymous, at least for now, I shall do so.
One person initially intended to look into the case of Charles Raby or Robert Pruett. After I mentioned that I have transcripts, case documents, and an inside source for the David Wayne Spence case, the person seemed interested in taking on the overwhelming task of looking into that cases.
Reader Mols offered (in a comment) to look into the case of Reginald Clemmons. I asked her to email me, we have communicated a little about the case, and it looks like a really bad one. Really bad.
Three readers have agreed to independently look into the case of Preston Hughes III, as I requested in a recent post. I see no problem having multiple people look into the same case. I know if I were working in parallel with another investigator, I would want my investigation to be thorough and correct if for no other reason than my work would be compared to others.
One common thread among the volunteer researchers is that they are all busy. None of them offers a quick response.
Another common thread is that I gave them all similar advice on how to get started: gather information. I gave some suggestions on how they might find such information online. I also gave some general thoughts on how they might try organizing the information once they gather it.
One volunteer researcher recently wrote:
So in gathering testimony, evidence and so forth, accessing primary trial transcripts for free is limited to what is published in the appellate documents. I'm finding transcripts of the testimony given at the original state trial where he was convicted from secondary sources. Is this how you acquire testimony or is there some other way to get transcripts of the State trial without paying a boat load of money?
My short answer was "Welcome to the first gigantic hurdle." I offered to give a more complete response in a post, so here we go.
Regarding the following discussion of trial transcripts, I caution that I am not an expert, that the situation varies from state to state, that I might be wrong, and that what knowledge I think I have is probably out of date. With that in mind, here's what I think I know.
All trials in this country are supposed to be public, as stated in the banner to this august blog. It's from the Sixth Amendment. "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury ..."
You can go to any courthouse in this country and walk into any courtroom holding a trial and sit down a listen to what's going on. You may not participate, and you may not disrupt, but you can certainly listen. (Also, although it's not guaranteed by the Constitution, you can sit through many court procedures, such as a string of defendants taking plea bargains. I've seen that, and it's distressing. It seems as if some of these people are seeing their court appointed attorney for the first or second time, they have no idea what to do, they want to talk to their families, they're not allowed to. Instead they're assured by the judge if they don't take the plea they will be almost certainly be convicted and sentenced harshly. At least that's what I saw, and it pissed me off. I think I'm still a bit peeved. But I digress.)
Even though the trial is open and free to the public, the trial transcripts are not. In fact, the trial transcripts are difficult for most people to get hold of. Jurors are certainly not allowed copies of the transcripts in the jury room. In part, that's because the transcripts contain sidebar discussions and other discussions held out of the presence of the jury. The jury is not allowed to hear all that. Also, it takes time to for the court stenographer to transcribe the proceedings from that funny little typewriter they use to English text.
I'm not particularly surprised that the jurors are not allowed copies of even redacted transcripts, though I think they should be. (What I find shocking is that many (I think most) jurisdictions do not allow jurors to even take notes. I've always been allowed to take notes, so I was shocked to learn that note taking is only allowed in some jurisdictions. The stated concern of the court is that the note-taking will distract the jurors from the testimony. There is simply no way in hell, however, to remember accurately all that is said in court. I can't imagine deliberating the cases I deliberated within having twelve set of juror notes. Even with those twelve sets of notes, we frequently couldn't agree on what had been testified. But I digress.)
Even the people convicted or acquitted can't get trial transcripts for free, unless the court orders the State to pay for the transcripts. The court may or may not so order in the case of a retrial or a decision to appeal.
My understanding is, however, that all trial transcripts are ultimately public, but the public will have to pay for them. This money frequently, perhaps usually, goes to the court recorder as a fee for transcribing transcripts that would have otherwise been preserved only as the paper from that strange little typewriter thing they use. The cost is, as I recall, a $1.00 or $1.50 a page. It varies. Since the pages are formatted such that none of them contains a who lot of testimony, the transcripts consist of many, many pages. They cost a lot.
Sometimes, the court has copies of transcripts which have already been transcribed. They will allow you to copy them, for a fee. At one point, I wanted the transcripts from the Ramzi Youssef trial. (He was the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bombing. I have a theory about that bombing that I wanted to pursue. Maybe I'll discuss that sometime in the future, but not now, because I don't want to further digress.) The transcripts existed at the courthouse in New York City, which is almost as far from my house as can be and still be within the continental U.S. I learned that I would be allowed to go there and copy them one page at a time using their copier for $0.25 per page. There were 15,000 pages as I recall. I was trying to figure out how many days it would take me to make the copies, and how much it would cost me to rent a room for several nights, and how much it would cost me to fly there, and get transportation from the airport. Then my head started to spin.
You won't be surprised to learn that I still don't have the transcripts for the Ramzi Youssef trial. If anyone has a copy and would like to send me a copy of your copy, that would be great.
I do have a number of trial transcripts which I have obtained for free in several fashions. I have a copy of the transcripts from the trial in which I held the jury out for eight days, forcing a retrial and the ultimate release of the defendant. The judge, to our amazement, ordered the State to pay the cost of those since the defendant was going to be retried. I studied those transcripts thoroughly, and I was surprised how much I had missed listening to the same testimony as a juror. I knew in great detail what the witnesses had said in the first trial, informed the defense attorney about witnesses who changed their testimony in the second trial, and helped prepare closing arguments in which we convinced the second jury that multiple State witnesses had perjured themselves.
I have a copy of the Bryon Case transcripts. I downloaded them from the site that opposes Byron's release. I have no idea how they got them.
I have a copy of the Michael Ledford transcripts. His mother sent them to me when I agreed to look into his case. I believe the court provided them for free because Michael appealed his conviction.
I have a copy of the transcripts from three trials associated with David Wayne Spence. I found them online after I had written briefly about his case. I downloaded them just in case. I'm now glad I did. Matters are picking up on that case. I have no idea, however, how I'm going to find time to go over all of them.
I have transcripts on some other cases too, as I recall. For a while, I was simply downloading transcripts whenever I came across them, just in case.
One way to write about a case using transcripts as a reference is to search for a case with transcripts. That's what I was doing when I stumbled across Byron Case. Some people claiming innocence put up web pages having links to trial transcripts and other case documents. I consider that a good sign. It tells me they are not afraid of the data. In Byron's case, I found one site claiming he was innocent and one site claiming he was guilty, and both had case documents. It was a gold mine, and the deciding factor for me looking into that case.
So there you go. More than you wanted to know about finding free trial transcripts for researching a case. In summary, I think having the trial transcripts is way preferable to not having them. In fact, transcripts have been absolutely essential for my efforts to help in the one case past and the two cases present. If you want to work on a case that has free trial transcripts available, I suggest you search for a case in which one side or the other has placed the transcripts online for download.