CARTER COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – Nearly a year-and-a-half after Carter County commissioners approved $47,000 in funding to renovate Carter County’s courtrooms, Sessions Court looks practically brand new with new lights, chairs and a freshly painted bench, but one thing hasn’t changed. The court’s ineffective audio recording equipment is still in use, despite leaders funding the improvements in February 2015.
Inaudible preliminary hearing recordings have impacted several high profile cases in the months before and after February 2015. Preliminary hearings, which include critical witness testimony that could help or hurt a defendant’s case, are one of the most important hearings in the criminal justice system and the law requires the courts to properly document them.
Sessions Court should again start meeting that requirement in the coming days. Fourteen thousand dollars worth of audio upgrades are scheduled to begin Tuesday.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Carter County General Sessions Judge Keith Bowers said. “I’m real excited about getting it done.”
Defense attorney Greg Norris wishes that sound system was there back in March. Instead, he says the existing recording device failed him and his client during a preliminary hearing.
“The tapes were inaudible,” Norris said. “You couldn’t hear them.”
Kelly Pitts is charged with seven counts of attempted murder for firing shots at Carter County deputies during a standoff, injuring one of the deputies. During his preliminary hearing, Judge Bowers found enough evidence to move the case forward, but when you go back to listen to the original recording, parts of it are challenging to understand.
“What kind of disadvantage are your clients at when you can’t hear these recordings?” we asked Norris.
“It’s a disadvantage of the old saying that if it isn’t wrote down, it didn’t happen,” he said.
Other attorneys first wrote down their concerns about audio issues in November after realizing, at times, the audio recordings in two murder cases also were not crystal clear.
Court records show defense attorney Steve Finney requested a new preliminary hearing for accused double-murderer Eric James Azotea on November 4, 2015 after he was notified that the “preliminary hearing recording was inaudible.” On that same day, court records show defense attorney Jim Bowman filed a similar motion for the same reasons on behalf of accused murderer Anthony Joseph Lacy.
The judge acknowledged the issue in October 2014 during Lacy’s preliminary hearing.
“Our recording devices are not the strongest,” Judge Bowers said during the hearing, according to the recording. “We’ve done the best we can, so speak as loud as you can.”
In those two cases, thanks to technology, the court reporter was able to boost the audio so she could transcribe what occurred, eliminating the need for new preliminary hearings, according to defense attorney Gene Scott.
“The trial judge asked the court reporter to see if she could enhance it,” Scott said. “The court reporter was ultimately able to make it play so she could transcribe it.”
Still, everyone agrees, it shouldn’t have to come to that. Attorneys say the court just needs to upgrade its audio equipment.
“I think that’s what needs to happen,” Scott said. “That way we won’t have these situations in the future.”
“Let’s find out what the problem is and see if we can get it fixed,” Norris said.
Public records reveal Carter County commissioners signed off on the funding for the audio upgrade in February 2015, bundling it with all of the other courtroom renovations, but while everything else changed the audio remained the same.
“We’re more than a year later. What took so long?” we asked Bowers.
“I did not know it was that bad of a problem until some of the recent motions,” he replied.
The judge said before he realized just how problematic the issue was becoming in November, it took him some time to research the legal process for buying the equipment (whether or not he needed to bid out the project). Then, in recent months, he said leaders started talking about moving him to another courtroom, so before signing the contract, he wanted to make sure he was staying put.
“Obviously, when we find out we have a bigger problem we want to address it as quickly as we can,” Bowers said. “We don’t want to do anything that causes a bigger problem or slows down a case.”
The judge officially signed the BIS Digital contract for audio improvements on June 10, the day after we started asking elected officials about the problem.
When we contacted Criminal Court Judge Lisa Nidiffer Rice on June 9 she said it was her understanding Bowers already had the vendor lined up to address the issue.
“Most recordings at issue have been able to be enhanced to allow the court reporter to transcribe the hearing,” she said. “The problems are supposed to be repaired within a month.”
To Bowers’ credit, over the last seven months, he and the clerk have added microphones and occasionally used a handheld recorder in an effort to come up with a temporary fix. But remember, Norris said those extra microphones still didn’t help his client’s case.
“I even put headphones on and jacked the volume up as loud as you can and I’ve sat just pushing (the headphones on my ears),” Norris said. “You can actually hear a little bit of mumbling, but you can’t make it out or understand what’s being said.”
The court has since enhanced the audio so he can now hear it better, but that’s not the only case where he’s asked for a new preliminary hearing. He did the same for the drug case of Robert Webster.
Webster hired him long after his December 2014 preliminary hearing, but court records show when Norris requested the tape of that hearing the clerk first gave him a recording of a county commission meeting and then later said the audio was inaudible.
Norris said his client told him strong evidence surfaced in court that December 2014 day that could lead to the dismissal of some of his charges if only he could find a working audio copy of that hearing.
“Of course, that client is pretty upset about the situation,” Norris said.
We requested the tape from Webster’s preliminary hearing. The clerk’s office told us that tape, if it even exists, is on the same recording as three months’ worth of other preliminary hearings recorded during the first round of courtroom renovations, and it would take a significant amount of time and money to try and find it.
Bowers said once the new audio recording equipment is functioning everyone will be better off.
“We need to have the best we can have,” he said. “We want to do the best we can every day.”
Copyright 2016 WJHL. All rights reserved.