WRENTHAM — Static echoes through the Wrentham District Courthouse jury courtroom at some trials, during certain conversations between the judge and attorneys.
“ I call it Niagara Falls,” First Justice Daniel Winslow says.
A white-noise generator activated during these privileged, sidebar discussions has smoothed the quality of trial transcripts at the court over the last four years, Winslow says. Attorneys preparing appeals then have more complete information to review.
By law, jurors cannot consider sidebar talk, such as a defendant refusing a Breathalyzer test, in their verdict. But in Wrentham and other smaller courtrooms, the jury is within feet of the bench, forcing judges and attorneys to whisper or have the jury excused.
Activated at the judge's discretion by a bench switch, the UHF snow-like sound blares over speakers above the jurors. That allows sidebar participants to speak at normal volume with the jury present. In the most quiet courtroom, the sidebar might sound like mumbling to jurors sitting closest to the bench.
Clearer trial transcripts emerge because the audio cassettes recording the proceedings capture the sidebars more accurately, Winslow says.
“ We were looking for a way to address the competing needs of the privacy of sidebars while preserving an appellate record,” explains Winslow, who has publicly endorsed building new, larger court facilities in the area.
“ The loudest microphone in the place is the sidebar microphone.
“ The purpose of sidebar conferences is not to keep relevant information from the jury. It's just the opposite. It's to make sure what jurors hear is relevant to the case,” the judge said.
Lip-reading by jurors is a potential problem during sidebars in close quarters, attorney Peter Padula of Franklin said. So he tries to “ keep the judge between me and the jury” when speaking.
“ It is difficult, because you want judges to hear everything you have to say, but (when whispering, they may not hear everything you say,” he adds. “ So yes, it is a nuisance.”
“ If people spoke in their normal tone of voice, the jurors would hear you,” says Joseph Cataldo, a Franklin-based attorney who has had cases tried in Wrentham. The white noise device is “ not ideal, but it's an improvement from whispering.”
White noise is most useful during brief sidebars, Cataldo said. Excusing the jury remains more practical for sidebars lasting more than a minute or two.
“ I think if it works, it's a great idea,” Padula says of the white-noise machine.
It's also more practical for creating the most accurate court transcripts, Cataldo and Winslow suggest. Whispering sounds garbled on the cassettes recording the proceedings.
The court clerk maintains the original cassette, Winslow explains. The clerk sends it to the state courts' central office for copying when requested by an attorney. The attorney then sends the tape to a transcriptionist.
“ We have a guy with headphones in Boston who sits and listens to and copies tapes,” Winslow says.
Replacing the audio cassette recorder with a digital one is Winslow's dream.
Proceedings would be recorded on a CD-ROM, which could then be downloaded onto the state courts' Web site, www.state.ma.us/courts/, Winslow said.
“ Lawyers would then download the audio clips to a particular relevant number with a push of a button,” he says. “ It would allow lawyers to assess a witness's credibility not just by their words, but by their voice.”
MICHAEL GELBWASSER may be reached at (508) 236-0336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.