port of harlem magazine
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Speaking While Black – In Court
March 14 – March 27, 2019

Philadelphia court reporters regularly made errors in transcribing sentences that were spoken in African American English (AAE), according to a forthcoming study in the journal Language that has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times. For the study, "Testifying While Black," Taylor Jones, Jessica Kalbfeld, Ryan Hancock, and Robin Clark tested 27 court reporters to see how they handled the distinctions in grammar and pronunciation of AAE speakers, which Jones explains is "a valid, coherent, rule-governed dialect that has more complicated grammar than standard classroom English in some respects."

The study points to a 2007 dissenting opinion from a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reports the Inquirer. The judge had listened to a recording from a 911 call and argued that it was not possible to know whether “he finna shoot me” was present or past tense. (“Finna” is a contraction of “fixing to.”) But the judge made a grammatical mistake: In African American English it is impossible for “he finna” to be in the past tense. The judge had consulted the site Urban Dictionary and still got it wrong.

They found that although court reporters are certified as 95% accurate in their transcriptions, they were accurate for only 83% of the words, 60% of the sentences, and 33% of their paraphrases of AAE speakers.

Black court reporters did not significantly outperform their White counterparts, perhaps because they distanced themselves from the speakers, frequently explaining that they "don't speak like that." These findings raise concerns about the quality of official records and, given that court reporters are the "best ears in the room," raise questions about how often judges, jurors, and lawyers are misunderstanding African Americans in court, explained Temple University law professor Jules Epstein. The study's researchers argue that accuracy in Black dialect should be addressed through training and testing in the court reporter certification process.

Research into the treatment of African American English in the criminal justice system is rare. Jones said the team’s inspiration came when George Zimmerman was on trial in the death of Trayvon Martin, and his friend Rachel Jeantel testified in African American English. 
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