True Crime Thursday – Shut the Door Murder Confession

Credit: Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A mistake in a court transcript resulted in a “confession” to a double murder in Syracuse, NY.

During testimony before a grand jury in February 2020, 13-year-old Brendell Elmore said he “shut the door.” However, the court reporter erroneously transcribed that he “shot the dude.”

Big oops.

By law, grand juries do not allow recording. A transcription by a court reporter is the official record of the proceedings. If the reporter doesn’t record something, it didn’t happen. Or if s/he records something incorrectly, that error stands unless challenged. Transcripts are critically important because they are the only documents that judges consider when they make rulings and decide appeals. 

Fortunately, in Brendell’s case, an audio recording verified his actual words–“shut the door.” The reporter had inadvertently activated a record option, saving his testimony. Although illegal, the judge ruled the recording was not intentional and it was crucial to the accuracy of the proceedings.

A news report about the error can be found at this link. A trial in March resulted in the conviction of Brendell’s older brother Treamon in the double murders, covered here. Even though Brendell didn’t pull the trigger, he was present during the crimes and held the victims at gunpoint with a non-working pistol. He faces time in a detention facility for his role.

The disturbing error in the transcript calls into question the long-standing practice of human stenographers who record documents by hand (and ear) in an age when digital recording is reliable and accurate.

While some courts are trending toward technology, lawyers still come down in favor of human stenographers, according to this article.

UPDATE: Please scroll down to Jim Bell’s comment for a more expert analysis than mine. Thanks, Jim!

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TKZers: Do you think court reporters are obsolete? Should digital recording be allowed in legal cases? What about using both reporters and recordings in tandem?

 

 

 

 

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This entry was posted in #truecrimethursday, Writing and tagged , , , by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

21 thoughts on “True Crime Thursday – Shut the Door Murder Confession

  1. As a lawyer in a past life, I can say transcripts are vital because the words need to be reviewed over and over and, more importantly, need to be precisely and easily quoted in appellate briefs or motions, etc. Law, like writing, is a profession of words.

    That said, I see no reason why we can’t use recordings as well. They’d provide much needed quality control. So my vote, like the commenter above, is both.

    PS knowing lawyers, though, I can already see the lawsuits and motions over discrepancies between transcript and tape.

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  2. I figured it would be “shot the door,” but “shot the dude” is even worse. Ouch. That reporter is so steeped in hearing crimes and Freudian slips, she/he needs a new job.

    If courts go to filming the case as well as transcripts, I wouldn’t be surprised if body language and speech experts would be part of the mistrial system. (AI computers used?) I sat on a jury for a rape case. The voice of the defendant on the stand changed so drastically between his unhappiness at being arrested and his alibi that he might as well have had a neon sign pointing at him and saying “liar.” The whole jury agreed that he was lying. On a transciprt none of that would show up. So, the subtle body language and voice pattern experts could eventually be part of the mistrial system. An interesting new world we live in.

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    • Thanks for bringing up another important point, Marilynn. Tone, inflection, and body language all contribute to determining what is true and what is a lie. None of those come across on the page…unless one writes fiction!

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  3. I was part of a federal grand jury for two years (!) in the Eastern District of Virginia. I found the entire process to be unfair. Witnesses and targets are not allowed to have an attorney present in the room, and there is no presentation of exculpatory evidence. Witnesses and targets are welcome to go outside the room after every question and consult with their attorney who’s sitting in the hallway, but there is no direct back-and-forth.

    Even after 30+ years, I am sworn to secrecy on the cases we heard–which is a shame because some of them were huge news makers. Under federal law, criminal charges start with an indictment, which is the sole purview of the grand jury. For example, we could (and did) direct the FBI to go and interview someone or collect evidence. The way it really worked was the assistant US attorney (AUSA) prosecuting the case would say something like, “We’d like you to direct the FBI to pick up John Doe for such-and-such.” We always said yes because why not? Also, grand jurors were able to ask questions of the witnesses and targets.

    Here’s how unfair the process is, though: On multiple occasions, the AUSA would tell us before the marshals delivered the witness (and before we were on the record) that he, the AUSA, was ethically bound not to ask certain questions, but as citizens, we faced no such ethical standards. He’d then assign one of us jurors to ask the unethical question, and the answer (which never would have been permitted if the defense attorney was present) became part of the record.

    As for recording the proceedings, I saw very few stenography machines. 90% of the time, the court reporter spoke into a contraption that looked a lot like an aircraft oxygen mask, repeating to tape what was said, real time.

    A few years ago, at a social event, I ended up eye-to-eye with a very bad dude that we’d indicted. The trial jury subsequently convicted him and the judge sentenced him to more than ten years, as I recall. So, here we are at a party for a charity he’s involved with and he gives me *that* look. “Where have we met?” he asks. “You look really familiar.” I had no idea what he was talking about, of course.

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    • Wow, John, what an experience. Thank you for sharing the gory details of how the sausage is made. I’ve always thought the grand jury system was inherently unfair and one-sided but I didn’t know how drastically slanted it was.

      If you’re allowed to answer w/o incriminating yourself , how is one selected to serve on a grand jury?

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      • One receives a summons in the mail with directions to report to the federal courthouse at a given date and time. My summons was signed by the famously irascible Judge Albert V. Bryan, after whom the courthouse for the Eastern District of Virginia is now named.

        I arrived as one of fifty potential jurors. The first thing that Judge Bryan did was call the roll. As I recall, four people failed to show. The judge then summoned the deputy marshals to the bench where he gave directions to bring the miscreant four to him in handcuffs and place them in a holding cell pending a hearing where they could show cause why they should not be held in contempt of court.

        Then Judge Bryan turned friendly and said good morning to us. He gave a truly inspiring speech where he told us the gravity of what we being asked to do, and that our decisions would forever change the lives of those we indicted. “I know that all of you have things you would rather be doing, and that many of you have important jobs. If you were on the other side of your deliberations, you would not want your future to be determined by unimportant people who had no better place to be.”

        The pool of 50 was winnowed down to 23, which was the size of the grand jury. For any given meeting (of which there were dozens over the two years we were impaneled), I believe 15 constituted a quorum, and it took 12 votes to indict.

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        • I’d wondered if selection was random, like regular jury duty, or if there were certain requirements one had to meet to be called.

          Thanks for the additional information.

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  4. I’m not sure the article linked to is accurate. The Feds do allow recording devices. Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 6(e)(1) states: Except while the grand jury is deliberating or voting, all proceedings must be recorded by a court reporter or by a suitable recording device. But the validity of a prosecution is not affected by the unintentional failure to make a recording. Unless the court orders otherwise, an attorney for the government will retain control of the recording, the reporter’s notes, and any transcript prepared from those notes.

    According one report, “Forty-eight states and the federal court system already electronically audio record grand jury testimony.”

    Not sure what went wrong in this case.

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  5. I am a former federal employee. In our organization, we had an insane overlord who came from hell itself. But in the years I knew him, he said one thing that I agree with without qualification.

    “Federal employees CANNOT communicate without paper. Any message that is official needs to be put on paper. If you don’t put it on paper, then you haven’t said it.”

    Over the years, I have come to see how true his observation was.

    To think of trying to run an entire legal system at any and all levels without trail recordings is very much like volunteering to run through a minefield.

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    • Jim, I’ve heard other federal employees say that, esp. in the military. A soldier might deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism and valor but if his/her actions aren’t memorialized in written reports, they didn’t happen.

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