On Jason Ferrell's first day as a Charles County court stenographer 11 years ago, the 20-year-old faced a tough first assignment: A Maryland State Police trooper was on trial for rape, and Ferrell had to type a verbatim report.
The nervous rookie brought along a tape recorder, just in case. Bad move, said his father, an "old school" court stenographer.
"The thinking was," Ferrell explained, "you're showing [judges] that tape recorders are just as good."
Ferrell ditched the recorder. But last summer, the judges of the Charles County Circuit Court decided that, indeed, electronic recordings of court proceedings are just as good. In all but a handful of court cases in Charles, a computer with a digital recorder is now solely responsible for taking down the words spoken at trials and hearings.
Other Maryland circuit courts have made similar changes. Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties have long recorded some or all court proceedings with video or audio computer systems. Calvert County's chief judge said he may test a computer system when the senior stenographer retires.
Such moves are transforming the obscure trade of court stenography. Calling themselves "the guardians of the record," stenographers try to capture everything said in court, taking down 200 words a minute using a byzantine shorthand and a thigh-high machine similar to a typewriter. Until the mid-20th century, some still wrote with a quill pen.
Their shorthand notes are most often translated into a verbatim record of a trial when the case is appealed to a higher court. For example, when a convicted defendant files an appeal, stenographers, also called court reporters, prepare a transcript for a fee.
Ferrell now spends relatively little time in the courtroom, venturing there mostly for murder trials or other big cases. A large part of his job consists of data management, and he maintains the six-foot-tall computer in a basement office called the control room, where sounds from the courtrooms upstairs are downloaded onto DVDs.
"The recording systems have been devastating to my profession," Ferrell said. "Would I recommend anyone getting into this job? No way."
Technology may be changing their roles, but stenographers probably will never be eliminated, said Barry Mahoney, president emeritus of the Denver-based Justice Management Institute.
"Court reporters may move from simply transcribing everything that happens in a courtroom to managing all of the information and exhibits and information that comes in," Mahoney said.
Many judges have made the switch to electronic systems reluctantly, and usually because of budget concerns. In 1994, under pressure from a county administration facing a $108 million deficit, the Prince George's County Circuit Court installed a video recording system to tape all cases but criminal trials.
It's not a perfect system. If the power goes out, a courtroom with an computer recorder must shut down, while a stenographer would still be able to work, said Judge William D. Missouri, administrative chief of the Prince George's County Circuit Court.
And then there is the unthinkable (which has yet to happen): Someone might forget to turn the computer on, and a trial would have to be done over, Missouri said.
"If I had my druthers, [a court reporter] is what I would have," Missouri said.
In Montgomery courts, where all cases are recorded digitally and then transcribed by a private company, some lawyers have complained about incomplete transcripts. Entire pieces of dialogue have been left out because the transcriber could not understand the tape, said Fred Warren Bennett, a Greenbelt defense lawyer.
"A whole case can hinge on the spoken word of a minor detail," said David R. Dawson of the Maryland Court Reporters Association. "A court reporter is there getting the 'uh-huhs' and the nodding of the heads in the affirmative or negative."
The economic benefits of replacing stenographers, who in the larger jurisdictions can make as much as $100,000 annually with benefits, can be great. In Anne Arundel, the digital recorders installed in 1996 have saved taxpayers $300,000 a year in "people costs," said Robert Wallace, the circuit court administrator.
But it's not just dollars and cents at stake. In criminal appeals, the rights of convicted defendants are at issue, some defense lawyers say. Stenographers are human and vulnerable to sickness, death and incompetence -- all of which can keep them from performing their most important task: producing transcripts.
Most defendants cannot have their appeals heard until a transcript is completed, said Larry A. Nathans, president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association.
In Charles, before the change to a computer system, at least two lawyers for convicted defendants who needed transcripts threatened to file contempt of court motions against a former stenographer who had become ill and let some projects lapse for more than a year.
"The machines do get to work on time," said Circuit Judge Robert C. Nalley, administrative chief for Charles Circuit Court. "They don't complain. They don't take sick leave. They don't leave early. They don't take breaks."