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Defendant Entitled to New Trial After Computer Virus Destroys Court Transcripts

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How’s this for an object lesson in backing up your data? A court has just ruled that a defendant who was convicted of murder is entitled to a new trial because a computer virus destroyed the entire transcript from his first trial.

The court reporter apparently committed an epic screw-up: court transcripts are ordinarily recorded simultaneously digitally, and on paper. However, the reporter forgot to bring enough rolls of paper for the stenograph, and relied only on the digital copy. She then transferred all the data to her personal computer, and erased the transcript from the stenograph. Her computer got a virus, and the only written record of the defendant’s trial in existence was erased.

Not surprisingly, the court reporter was fired.

This means that the court system will have to go through the additional expense of a new trial, all the witnesses will have to endure the inconvenience of showing up again to testify, and, most importantly, the friends and family of the victim will have to endure the heartache of having this whole process dragged out for however long a second trial takes.

Needless to say, this was a monumental blunder on the part of that court reporter, and it was right for her to be fired for it. “The record” is absolutely essential in any judicial proceeding. Essentially, the record includes all the documents and other items introduced as evidence, as well as a full transcript of the trial and other proceedings related to the case. When the ruling of a trial court is appealed because the losing side believes the court committed a legal error, the appeals court has to examine the record to see if any mistakes were made. So, when the conviction was appealed, and the appeals court realized that no transcript of the trial could be found, it had no choice but to order a new trial.

As I said, this was a spectacular screw-up.

However, I fear that isolated incidents like this will be used by certain people as an avenue to attack the legitimacy of America’s judicial system. This is almost a perfect storm of a defendant “getting off on a technicality,” and incompetence of a judicial employee.

These are common avenues of attacks on the judicial system from people who have a vested interest in weakening that branch of government. Rather than coming out and stating that they have an ideological agenda which does not leave room for a strong and independent judiciary, anti-court crusaders often take on the roll of the “concern troll” – expressing “concern” about the state of the judicial system, and arguing that it needs “reform.” Of course, these “reforms” are usually shortsighted attention-grabbers, or cynical efforts to undermine the judiciary’s power to protect the economic interests of a particular group. But I’ve gone into the topic of tort “reform” before, so I’m not going to spend too much time dwelling on it.

But, I will concede one point: incidents like this one, rare though they are, do demonstrate that our court system needs improvement. Of course, I don’t believe that these improvements would come in the form of laws meant to limit the rights of civil plaintiffs, and draconian “tough-on-crime” legislation.

Instead, I think the improvements should come in the form of better funding for the court system (which is a popular target for budget cuts when governments are running big deficits), and more comprehensive and uniform training and oversight of the various court systems in the United States.

The best way to preserve the legitimacy of the judicial system is to ensure that it operates effectively and efficiently. Obviously, this blunder provides an example of a court system that is not effective or efficient. Hopefully, it will serve as a wakeup call that many of the court systems in the U.S., particularly at the state and local level, are in need of some serious attention.


  • Beverly Michaelis

    Thanks for posting – the first such case I’ve heard of involving a court reporter and a good reminder to stay on top of computer security. Wonder if the Judge will proceed differently next time – he/she could have granted a recess to permit the court reporter to go get more paper. Also a good warning to lawyers to ask the court for a recess under such circumstances.

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