It is well settled that the admission of tape recordings at trial rests within the sound discretion of the trial court. That discretion presumes, as a prerequisite to admission, that the tapes be authentic, accurate and trustworthy. Moreover, they must be audible and sufficiently comprehensible for the jury to consider the contents. Recordings will be deemed inadmissible if the unintelligible portions are so substantial as to render the recording as a whole untrustworthy.
Appellants Charles Cornett, James Coldiron and Clarence Robinson, were each charged in a two count indictment with violating, and conspiring to violate, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The indictment alleged that after the State of Kentucky had confiscated alcoholic beverages from illegal "bootlegging" activities, appellants surreptitiously removed the contraband from the state's custody and resold it for private monetary gain. The government's case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky relied heavily upon conversations it had recorded between a government Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agent and appellants. Since substantial portions of the tape recordings were inaudible, the government sought to aid the jury's understanding of the tapes by providing them with a purported transcript of the recordings. The first trial resulted in a hung jury on April 14, 1980. The second trial which also employed transcripts of the taped conversations, resulted in the conviction of each appellant on October 30, 1980. Appellants Cornett and Robinson were sentenced on each count to four-year concurrent terms of confinement, while appellant Coldiron was sentenced on each count to three-year concurrent terms. Appellants seek reversal of their convictions on two grounds. First they contend that the district court erred in allowing the government to provide the jury with a "transcript" of tape recordings. Secondly, they argue that the district court erred in denying their motions to sever their cases.
Did the district court err in allowing the government to provide the jury with a transcript of tape recordings?
The Court held that the district court erred to the substantial prejudice of defendants by permitting jurors to read purported transcripts of electronically recorded conversations. The court held that the transcripts utilized at trial bore little semblance of reliability. Furthermore, in this case, the appellants claim that they were denied their sixth amendment right to confrontation because they were not able to call their co-conspirators to testify; the Court thought otherwise. The Court ruled that there was no abuse of discretion in the district court's denial of the appellants’ severance because in light of the circumstances, it has not been demonstrated that one of the co-conspirators was willing to testify.