The Utah Supreme Court Thursday upheld a lower court's decision not to grant a new trial to convicted killer Ralph Leroy Menzies despite arguments by his attorneys that an error-riddled transcript made an appeal impossible.
The high court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it ruled that the admittedly flawed record was sufficient for appellate review.Menzies was convicted in 1988 of first-degree murder in the death of Maurine Hunsaker, a mother of four who was kidnapped from the gas station where she worked on Feb. 23, 1986. Her body was found two days later in Big Cottonwood Canyon. She had been strangled and her throat had been slit.
Menzies' court-appointed attorney, Joan Watt, earlier had argued that numerous inaccuracies in a trial transcript prepared by court reporter Tauni Lee would make it impossible for an appellate court to review the death penalty case.
Defense attorneys said they found 350 discrepancies and many omissions in a 53-page portion of the 3,500-page document.
Lee was dismissed from her job in 1988 and moved to California. Third District Judge Raymond Uno ordered representatives from both sides in the case go to California to meet with Lee and try to clean up errors.
The Supreme Court ruling notes that on the trial level, Menzies had argued that Lee was unqualified because she was not licensed in Utah, but the trial court found Lee's "training, testing and experience" qualified her to transcribe Menzies' four-week trial.
Menzies also alleged that the transcript errors were prejudicial, but the Supreme Court said that was not the case.
For example, Menzies alleged that the transcript was flawed during jury selection because some prospective jurors' responses were unintelligible; a note reader working for Lee "made up" admonitions, questions and answers; and there were omissions from the transcript.
However, the Supreme Court's review of the transcript shows it is possible to determine that prospective jurors responded appropriately to questions, even though some were inarticulate, and that difficulties can be understood by examining responses in the context of questions asked.
The high court acknowledged discrepancies between the original transcript and the court reporter's notes but termed them "minor in nature." Also, many of the questions dealt with the death penalty, which the high court said are "not particularly relevant" since jurors did not sit for the penalty phase of the proceedings.
"It is true that a record could be so severely affected by transcription errors that it would be impossible to ascertain what arguments are being made or what evidence is being offered," according to the Supreme Court decision. "However, a review of the entire rec-ord reveals no instance where it is impossible to determine what conceivable appellate issues are impacted by specific errors."
Menzies also said the flawed court documents interfered with his ability to appeal his death sentence and therefore denied his constitutional rights protecting him from cruel and unusual punishment, and denied him due process.
"However, since none of the transcription errors prejudice Menzies' appeal, use of the transcripts does not deprive him of a `meaningful appellate review,' " the Supreme Court said in its decision. The court said the right of appeal is a fundamental right, but there is no constitutional right to a "perfect transcript."
Instead, the court said, criminal defendants have the right to a "record of sufficient completeness to permit proper consideration of (their) claims."