Four years ago, lawyer Richard Ricks was forced to call it quits at D.C. Superior Court. A criminal defense lawyer who was going deaf, Ricks went from judge to judge to deliver the wrenching news that his loss of hearing meant he could no longer practice in court.
But this week, Ricks, 37, was back.
Wired with an amplifier and aided by a state-of-the-art computer system, Ricks was at the defense table once again. In Courtroom 214, he stood with a small computer screen in front of him that flashed every word uttered in the court.
It was a milestone for Ricks, and for the D.C. court system as well. For the first time, the court was providing sophisticated new "simultaneous transcription" equipment to help the hearing impaired.
"I'm really back," Ricks said as he burst from court at the end of the day. "This is what I should be doing."
In a courthouse where despair is far more prevalent than hope, Ricks's appearance at trial was a moment to be savored. "My God, that's wonderful," said a judge to whom Ricks had said farewell in 1986. "He's conquered it." Others could only marvel at his tenacity. "It has taken a lot of courage," said criminal lawyer Lawrence Huebner.
The case in Courtroom 214 involved a routine cocaine possession charge, but there was nothing routine about Ricks's battle to be in court, or the technology that made it possible.
As the trial started Monday, Ricks stood at the defense table, a laptop computer in front of him. As the court reporter did her usual job, taking down the words of lawyers, witnesses and the judge, a computer translated her work into the written word and flashed it across the screen for Ricks to read.
Ricks literally bounced with excitement. He wiped his brow and thrust one arm behind him, nervously clicking a ballpoint pen. Stooping to see the screen, he also strained to watch the witness and to catch the prosecutor's questions through his amplifier. Occasionally, there was an uncomfortable pause as the computer lagged a bit, and Ricks was forced to wait to catch up.
"With a hearing loss, it is always a strain," Ricks said after a day using the new system in a trial. "You're straining to hear; you're straining to lip-read; you're trying to look at the screen. I'm concerned how it looks to others, but not concerned enough to stop."
Without the computer, Ricks said, he could not do trial work at all. "It would not be fair to my clients," he said. "I'd be missing too much."
When Ricks discovered his hearing problem in 1984, he was taking court appointments to defend indigent clients in criminal cases.
As a degenerative disease ate away at his hearing, Ricks tried to hang on. He used microphones clipped to the lapels of clients, prosecutors and judges and an amplifier he held in his hand. But by late 1986, he feared that he might be hurting his clients, and he tearfully gave up the work he loved.
The next few years were a jumble of losses and gains. Ricks said he spent much of 1987 "in despair . . . lying on the couch saying, 'Oh woe is me.' " He tried research work, and he studied sign language and lip reading.
In 1988, his hearing improved slightly, and he took some hesitant steps back to court. Sometimes it went well. At other times it didn't, such as the day a judge refused to clip on the small microphone that enables Ricks to hear.
"The judge said, 'No, I have ruled,' and threw his hands in the air," Ricks recalled. But such reactions were rare, Ricks said, and most people were understanding.
Then, last May, Ricks's hearing again grew worse, and despite two operations, he lost all hearing in one ear and was left with less than 25 percent in the other. Trial work seemed impossible, until he heard of D.C. court reporter Martin Block -- past president of a national court reporters association -- and simultaneous transcription.
The technology has been available since the early 1980s, Block said, and is now widely used to provide quick printed transcripts of trials. But occasionally, it has been used to help the hearing impaired. A Wisconsin appeals judge with a severe hearing loss has used it since the mid-1980s. A government lawyer recently used it during a federal appeal here.
Ricks was working with Block and hoping to persuade the D.C. courts to provide the service for his trials, but the court surprised him last week, buying a $16,000 system before Ricks had opened his campaign.
Yesterday, Ricks finished his first trial, and his client was acquitted.
Superior Court Judge Ellen Huvelle thanked the jurors, saying they had participated in a "historic trial in the District."
But Ricks was thinking only of the future.
"I feel great," he said. "Now I know I can work again."