A good beginning
My first transcription case, back in 1998, was a request from police to verify an indistinct recording was ‘untranscribable’. I went on to transcribe it in great detail, including names and details I could not have known except from the audio (because I had taken the precaution of ensuring I was given no background information before making a first attempt at independent transcription). This all seemed natural and normal to me, and of course I was happy to be able to help. I didn’t think more about it. Most of the issues seemed to be about speaker identification, and my forensic efforts (in the time left after my university teaching and research responsibilities) went into explaining common misunderstandings, especially in relation to so-called ‘voiceprints’.
A strange experience
My next forensic transcription case, a few years later, was completely different from the first. The audio was a very indistinct recording of sporadic conversation among several people moving around in a flat. The prosecution alleged these people were involved in a drug-related crime, and believed this audio supported their case. Part of their evidence was that one of the people made utterances including the word ‘heroin’ on several occasions. My analysis found the relevant parts were among the most indistinct of the entire recording. In fact they were so indistinct, it was impossible to be confident of what was really said, but it was clear that the prosecution transcript was at best unjustified, and in several respects demonstrably wrong.
Of course my question was ‘Who on earth made this transcript?’. The answer was my first introduction to the concept of a police transcript.
I wrote a long report explaining the problems with this transcript – and then entered a new phase of my education regarding the legal handling of covert recordings when I was cross-examined in court.
The prosecution barrister informed me he could hear the alleged words perfectly well, ‘How can you call yourself an expert’, he asked, in a not particularly friendly tone, ‘if you can’t hear something that is perfectly clear to others?’. He even offered to provide earphones to help me hear better. I assured him I had already used earphones during my analysis and explained how ‘hearing’ is a far more complex process than most people realise.
The next phase
I then entered the next phase of my legal education when I was told that this argument about whether the word ‘heroin’ could be heard in the covert recording had been going on for years, each side calling experts of varying background to back up their version. It seemed I was the first to indicate that it was simply not possible to transcribe this material reliably.
Now here’s the bizarre thing. Whether or not the word ‘heroin’ had been used was completely irrelevant to the ultimate issue, which is whether the covert recording had captured people talking about a drug-related crime.
Most importantly, the fact that the specific word ‘heroin’ could not be reliably transcribed certainly did not mean the defendants were not guilty. Quite possibly, the rest of the conversation contained information that would have assisted the prosecution more effectively.
Of course I don’t know for sure whether the defendants were guilty or not, and it is not my role to reach an opinion about the ultimate issue. However, based on what I subsequently found out about the case, there was substantial evidence to confirm the prosecution’s allegations. The police transcript just caused a distraction in what could have been a far more cut-and-dried case.
Most importantly, if the audio was relevant, a reliable, professionally laid-out transcript of the whole conversation, made under conditions that allowed appropriate disclosure of relevant contextual information, would have made a far better basis for assisting the jury to decide that issue than this time-wasting, irrelevant argument about a barely audible part of the recording.
From then till now
That was the beginning of a long and steep learning curve for me. During the ensuing decade or more I have learned with surprise of many bizarre aspects of the way the legal system handles covert recordings. I have tried to share some of them on this website, in hopes of bringing about changes that will make the whole process more efficient and more fair.