A number of years ago, I worked as a court reporter in central Wisconsin.
My second case gone to trial centers around allegations of animal abuse. Photos of skinny, scabbed cows knee-deep in ice and muck took over my life.
I learned enough about cow’s stomachs to make me appear to be quite bovine-savvy, should conversation ever veer in that direction.
I also learned that my judge was, if not entirely deaf, nearly so.
The defendants were a pair of second generation Poles with a last name sorely lacking in vowels. Central Wisconsin is a profoundly rural area, and while they both had been born in the U.S., Polish was spoken at home and their English was heavily accented.
Both Pole One and Pole Two lived on what could be referred to, loosely, as a farm. From the photos, however, it more closely resembled the perfect location for a horror movie, everything stark, broken, covered with barbed wire, discarded animal traps, rusted metal buckets.
They were thin, dirty individuals – think “Ed Gein” without the good looks. They wore polyester leisure suits, shirts buttoned to the Adam’s apple. Their hair appeared to have been cut at the kitchen table with the household scissors, their dirty fingernails pared down with pen knives. Their faces were dark, weathered by sun and wind. They both seemed to have misplaced their teeth (or at least the front ones).
They both chewed tobacco but were never seen spitting.
It was my first job with this particular judge, an elderly man filling in for a judge on vacation.
My first clue to the interim judge’s deafness came when the veterinarian took the stand. After covering the formalities – name, education, years in business – she began describing the conditions of the milk barn.
From the defense table, Pole One speaks up: “She’s a liar.”
“She can **** my ****,” says Pole Two, seated next to him, “and when she’s done wit’ dat she can cook my dinner.”
As a quick aside, I’m not “asterisking” out the words here because they are dirty but because I suspect they are in Polish. Whatever P2 said, it is not a compliment, never mind the fact that it is being blurted out during testimony – a big no-no in court.
What the court reporter can hear, the court reporter must write. I pound furiously on my machine to capture the questions from the attorneys, the testimony of the vet, and the defendants’ remarks.
The second comment comes just minutes later, after the vet states that several of the cows would have to be put down.
“She’s a got-dam liar,” says Pole One. His attorney leans into him, hisses at him.
My hands fly as I struggle to properly identify the speaker and enter his words into the record.
I look up to see if the judge is catching any of this.
He is not, but a quick look at the jury tells me that they are.
I begin to cough, repeatedly, something most judges know to be a sign that a break is needed.
He calls the break.
“Judge Wapner,” I say, chasing him down the hall, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but both defendants have been talking during testimony, loudly enough that I written it into the record. I believe the jury is hearing it as well.”
“Is that so?” he chuckles.
“Yes,” I say. “The next time they do it, if it’s okay with you, I’ll start coughing. Then you can ask me to read the record back, and you can catch them at it.”
“Good idea,” he says.
We go back into the courtroom, and as I settle into my chair, hands on the keys, the judge clears his throat.
And I begin to write.
“My court reporter informs me that the two defendants have been talking during testimony,” he says “and that she has written their words into the record.”
I look up from my machine in time to see P1 and P2 glaring at me.
I look up at the judge, who beams benevolently at me.
“If she is forced to continue to write your comments,” he says, looking sternly down at the defendants, “I shall have you taken out of this courtroom. Do you understand me?”
The brothers, who have grinned at me flirtatiously all morning, now scowl openly.
Pole One mutters a slew of uncomplimentary things about me, which I enter into the record.
Over the lunch hour, I request – and receive – a bailiff escort to and from my car for the remainder of the trial.
I miss being a court reporter.