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A court reporter’s stint as witness to an alleged courtroom confession was the fatal flaw that overturned a 1994 Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court murder conviction. The Georgia Supreme Court last week reversed former Delta Air Lines engineer Barry S. Slakman’s conviction for the beating and strangulation of his wife. Shana Glass Slakman, who was in the process of leaving her husband, was found dead July 6, 1993, in the bathtub of the couple’s home. At his trial, Barry Slakman broke down on the witness stand when then-Fulton Assistant District Attorney Joseph F. Burford showed him a photograph of his wife’s bloody body. “Why did I do that to her?” he shrieked as he was led from the courtroom, according to the trial’s court reporter. The justices, in a 4-3 decision, concluded that the trial judge erred in allowing the court reporter to testify that she had heard a hysterical Slakman admit guilt and that what she heard was verified by the audiotape she was making of the proceedings. Given Lisa Lewis’ role as official transcriber of testimony, “Her testimony, at a minimum, had the effect of a transcript of Slakman’s statement because it reflected the words she would have transcribed had she been taking them down,” wrote Presiding Justice Norman S. Fletcher for the majority. “It is likely that the jury gave great deference to her testimony.” But the trial judge, the late Josephine Holmes Cook, failed to instruct jurors that they should determine for themselves what was on the recording of Slakman’s outburst, Fletcher wrote. “The court’s error in this regard was exacerbated by the fact that the court reporter was permitted to testify before the audiotape was played, thus predisposing the jury to an interpretation of the audiotape.” That combination of circumstances, he added, required reversal. The case is Slakman v. State, S00A0227 (Sup. Ct. Ga. July 13, 2000). The majority also found that Cook erred by allowing the testimony of Slakman’s first wife. She testified that, in the early 1970s, he choked her after she told him she wanted a divorce. The incident, Fletcher wrote, was too remote in time to be admissible as a similar transaction, particularly since there was no evidence Slakman abused his second wife during their marriage. Shana Glass was his third wife. Finally, the majority concluded it was an error to permit five witnesses, including two divorce lawyers Shana Slakman had consulted, to testify that she had told them about difficulties with her husband. That testimony, Fletcher wrote, could not overcome the hearsay rule because it lacked “particularized guarantees of trustworthiness.” Justice Carol W. Hunstein, joined by Justices George H. Carley and P. Harris Hines, dissented to the reversal. Hunstein said “Under well-established law, the testimony of the court reporter was admissible both as to what she herself heard Slakman state in her presence and as to the accuracy of the tape recording she had made of Slakman’s statement.” Hunstein wrote that the court reporter’s testimony would carry no more weight than the testimony of a police detective who recorded a defendant’s statement. The majority’s contention that the court reporter’s official role made her testimony inadmissible is without merit, Hunstein wrote. “It was Slakman’s own behavior in uttering a statement in her presence which caused her to be a witness,” she added. Hines also wrote a separate dissent, joined by Hunstein and Carley, objecting to the majority’s holding that Slakman’s first wife’s testimony should have been excluded as too remote in time to be similar. While the passage of time is a factor in determining if similar transaction evidence is admissible, Hines wrote, “it alone is not determinative. Nor should it be, especially in cases involving domestic abuse, which are prone to patterns of conduct.” The first wife’s testimony “was highly relevant on both the issue of Slakman’s state of mind and his course of conduct in a marriage gone bad,” Hines continued. “The trial court did not err in admitting it.” While Slakman’s murder conviction was reversed, his conviction on a charge of aggravated assault on a police officer was affirmed. Slakman stabbed Fulton Police Lt. Denny Hendrix, now the sheriff of Forsyth County, in the hand with an ink pen when Hendrix asked if he had killed his wife. Erik Friedly, spokesman for Fulton District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr., says the exclusion of the similar transaction and other witness testimony will make a retrial difficult. But his office does intend to prosecute the case again. Slakman’s appellate lawyer, Fulton Assistant Public Defender Steven Eric Phillips, did not return a call for comment. STRANGE OUTBURST RECALLED The defendant’s trial lawyer, Jeffrey B. Bogart, says Slakman’s courtroom outburst was “the most bizarre moment” he had seen in 30 years of practice. Lawyers often warn jurors that trials don’t proceed like those depicted on television’s Perry Mason. “No one will shout, ‘I did it!’” Bogart says. But that’s exactly what some claim happened, he says, although he is quick to say he believes Slakman did not confess. Slakman was on the witness stand, when Burford produced a photograph of his deceased wife in a body bag. Slakman began shrieking. Cook sent the jury out of the courtroom, then ordered Slakman removed by deputies. As the defendant was led out of the courtroom, he said something that was not transcribed by the court reporter, but was caught on audiotape. On the tape, played when court reconvened, Slakman’s voice rose in wails but his words were inaudible to courtroom observers. Bogart can be heard saying, “Move for mistrial.” Burford insisted that Slakman had blurted out a confession and told Cook that he was entitled to put court reporter Lewis on the stand and to play the tape for the jury. Cook said she too had heard such a statement. Bogart protested, arguing that he had never heard of court personnel becoming witnesses and that Lewis’ official status would unfairly boost her credibility with the jury. He also protested Burford’s tactic of showing his client the gruesome photo, calling the subsequent outburst “coerced.” Burford got huffy. What Bogart “thinks and believes is immaterial,” Burford told Cook. “Murder is a bloody business, your honor.” When testimony resumed, Slakman contended that he had not confessed, but had in fact asked why “they” had done it. He had no further outbursts during his cross-examination. Lewis, who took the stand in rebuttal, testified to the jury that she had heard Slakman say “Why did I do that to her?”

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