Speaking Black dialect in courtrooms can have striking consequences

Study found court reporters in Philadelphia regularly made errors in transcribing sentences that were spoken in a dialect that linguists term African-American English.

Researchers played audio recordings of a series of sentences spoken in African-American English and asked 27 stenographers who work in courthouses in Philadelphia to transcribe them.

On average, the reporters made errors in two out of every five sentences, according to the study.The findings could have far-reaching consequences, as errors or misinterpretations in courtroom transcripts can influence the official court record in ways that are harmful to defendants, researchers and lawyers said.

While Pennsylvania court reporters must score 95 percent accurate on tests in order to be certified, the reporters in this study were fully accurate, on average, on just 59.5 percent of the sentences. Riley H. Ross III, a lawyer in Philadelphia, said that it was not just black dialect that was often misunderstood in a courtroom.

It happens with other races, too, he said, and it was up to him as a lawyer to intervene in real time. Defense lawyer Anthony L. Ricco: “If the court reporters are missing the story … The jurors are missing the story.”

Source: John Eligon, The New York Times, (06/02/2019) ‘Speaking Black dialect in courtrooms can have striking consequences’

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