By Mr. Mike Bowers (Leonard Wood)June 9, 2016
If you asked him to recall verbatim what was said in the courtroom for each of the nearly 400 military trials in which he sat, Bob Michael could tell you.
Not only could he repeat every single word, but also every gesture and account for each document and exhibit entered into evidence during his 20-year civilian and military career as a court reporter.
Michael isn't blessed with a photographic memory, but rather it is his training and experience as a closed microphone court reporter that enables him to keep meticulous documentation of courtroom proceedings.
According to Michael, he is currently the only Fort Leonard Wood court reporter and one of about 24 in the U.S. Army. The urge to become one of the courtroom's most important assets began when he was an Army paralegal specialist stationed in Wurzburg, Germany, around 1988.
He said, attending the trial of a noncommissioned officer he knew intrigued him to switch careers.
"When I heard 'All rise,' there was this one person who didn't rise," recalled Michael, a Rochester, New Hampshire, native. "He sat there with a big, old mask up to his face, tilting it ever so slightly. Now I know he was repeating everything that was said into that big mask."
Michael said he observed the reporter marking exhibits and constantly whispering to the judge. "I thought that was an interesting job and wanted to try," Michael said.
So, he made the switch. The Desert Shield/Desert Storm veteran graduated from six weeks of microphone court reporter training at the Judge Advocate General School, then at Naval Justice School, Rhode Island. The school is now in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As a court reporter, Michael sits at the bench below the judge. He is responsible for marking exhibits in courts-martial, keeping on- and off-the-record times and placing movements of documents and gestures within the transcripts.
He is also trained on the closed microphone, which is a device with microphones, placed over the mouth to allow whispering to repeat what is said. "I really haven't used this microphone for some time, as the microphones within our courtroom are fixed and pick up quite well," Michael said.
He said a good court reporter "needs to have good hearing, grasp of vocabulary and the use of proper grammar." Although he types, it is not on a typewriter but an electronic note-taking program. He uses voice recognition software to repeat what is said in the courtroom to provide a transcript.
Michael is also expected to maintain a nonbiased demeanor. "We are taught not to display or show emotions, one way or the other," he said, admitting it can be difficult in abuse or murder cases.
One such case he recalled was in Fort Bliss, Texas. The Soldier was charged with driving a sports car at more than 100 mph when he hit a motorcyclist, dragged the person more than 300 yards, which resulted in the biker's death.
"This stands out in my mind, because the Soldier refused to take responsibility," Michael said. "He gave the reason that his girlfriend was having an asthma attack."
Ironically, Michael's work puts him under siege.
The defense and legal teams scrutinize his court record, which can be as many as 2,000 pages, according to Michael. He said the record travels from the convening authority to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.
"They try to find any discrepancies or errors within the record of trial," Michael said. "Providing an accurate, verbatim record of trial makes the process much more difficult or easy, depending on which side is reviewing to find issues during the courts-martial process."
That process could not take place without court reporters, actually or legally, according to Maj. Jay Burns, Fort Leonard Wood's chief of military justice. Burns said, by Army regulation, there is a requirement to have a court reporter present at every court-martial.
"The record of trial is absolutely vital to maintain fairness and justice in our military justice system," Burns said. "Mr. Michael is instrumental to us in that process. Not only does he execute his duties with the utmost skill and professionalism, he is always willing to help out in other areas."
Michael also mentors young attorneys and paralegals and is "instrumental in many of the administrative tasks to keep the OSJA running smoothly. Whereas, he could easily just record the courts-martials, transcribe them and move on, he actually seeks to make those who practice in front of him better practitioners," Burns added.
As for Michael, he said he appreciates the interaction.
"The biggest moments of my career would be every day when I come to the office and am approached by either the trial or defense counsel with questions about 'What would happen if,'" Michael said.
"This signifies our counsel appreciate me and what I have seen in my career. It is a lonely job, and usually, for the most part, a thankless job that really begins after the case adjourns," Michael said.
He said the pressures of being fast and accurate are stressful. "However, through the years, I've been able to engage the law without taking one side or the other," Michael said. "When either the defense or prosecution want my opinion, that respect is pretty awesome."
Michael said his account of the number of court cases he has recorded or transcribed is vague. However, ask him about the details of each one, and he can literally repeat every, single word.