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White court reporters are writing down Black people’s testimonies wrong, worrying study reveals

September 12, 2019 at 11:04 am | News

Ama Nunoo

Ama Nunoo | Staff Writer

September 12, 2019 at 11:04 am | News

Photo: Houston Defender

The race war between blacks and whites in the American justice system is an ongoing conversation.

Though everyone has the right to a fair trial, speakers of the African American English (AAE) might be disadvantaged in court proceedings.

Speakers of AAE are more likely to have their words misunderstood, or inaccurately inscribed in official court records.

The speaker might be a key witness or a defendant having their verbatim correspondence misrepresented because the white court reporter might not be highly trained to understand their utterances.

This area of research into AAE in legal proceedings exists already and has been widely spoken of in many circles. The earlier academic investigation into the issue was by Rickford & King 2016, which used the murder trial of George Zimmerman as its case study.

In the Zimmerman trial, the key witness, Jeantel, was the last person to speak to the deceased, Trayvon Martin on phone prior to his death.

Her testimony was crucial to the case but was looked over because the jurors who were mostly white didn’t understand her. Being African American, her testimony was in African American English.

The media and jurors heavily criticised her tone and style; all these criticisms came from white Americans.

On “America Live,” attorney Jonna Spilbor commented that the then-19-year-old came across as “brutally ignorant.” In an interview with Anderson Cooper, a juror on the case said Jeantel was “hard to understand and not credible.” 

Rickford and King’s research is the backdrop for new research by a group of graduates from different institutions. Their new study, which can be found in the journal Language, seeks to prove that inaccurate transcriptions do and can affect the official court records.

Stenographers are to transcribe real-time court proceedings. A certified court reporter’s accuracy should be 95% or 98% when they transcribe Standard American English, SAE.

However, this system leaves out the nonstandard dialects like the African American English; it rather looks out for speed, punctuation, spelling and specific medical and legal jargons, the Vice reports.

Primarily, the research called “Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English,” certifies that stenographers from Philadelphia were asked to transcribe 83 sentences in African American English every day.

Nine different respondents were engaged from West Philadelphia, Jersey City and Harlem. They were all native AAE speakers who have had a brawl with the criminal justice system.

Each of the 27 court reporters recorded AAE speakers with an average score of 82.9%, that is below the standard 95 to 98% expected of them, the Vice writes.

What makes this alarming is that all documented transcripts from the court reporters become a legal document and are binding on each person in the case.

“Once something is in the court record via the transcript, it legally becomes what was said even if it is inaccurate, which brings up questions of due process and equal protection under the law if some people are less likely to be accurately transcribed than others,” said Jessica Kalbfield, a researcher on the study from New York University.

Some errors made by the reporters can be glossed over but others have dire consequences on the outcome of the judgement on the case. Taylor Jones, from the University of Pennsylvania, who is an author of the study, said: “In some cases, the errors were not harmful, because they were uninterpretable.”

“In others, they changed participants, actions, and order of events. In 31 percent of the 2,241 transcriptions, researchers found, the court reporters’ errors changed the content of what the speaker was saying, misinterpreting either who was involved, what was happening, when it happened, and/or where it happened. [These errors] could make or break an alibi in the real world,” the Vice reports.

AAE is largely badly branded and it has a slightly complicated grammatical composition than Standard American English.

It is a widely known fact that its native speakers, usually African Americans, understand the dialect.

Nonetheless, non-native speakers, generally white people, cannot fully understand AAE even though it is “equally valid, systematic, and rule-governed as other language varieties,” Black American web reports.

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