Monday, March 10, 2014

Creativity in law and oral history: transcribing the story of prosecutor Sam Millsap

An excerpt from the transcript of Sam Millsap's interview

Lillie Leone is currently a junior Bridging Disciplines scholar at UT-Austin concentrating in International Political and Economic Development and majoring in Plan II Honors and Italian. Learn more about Lillie by clicking on our Meet the Interns post!  

This post is the fourth in a series titled Digital archives internship (also tagged as Archiving the death penalty), where TAVP interns publish their reflections on processing the TAVP collection. Check back for future posts. 

Creativity in law and oral history: transcribing the story of prosecutor Sam Millsap
by Lillie Leone

When I began transcribing and auditing the interview with Sam Millsap, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was inexperienced—both in transcribing and the issue of the death penalty in Texas—but I had gotten a taste of his interview when I formatted it the first session. Millsap is a prosecutor and the ex-DA of Bexar County, and you might expect his interview to be full of legal jargon, legal processes, and similarly dry descriptions of cases he has dealt with in his long career. You would expect wrong. 

On the contrary, Millsap goes into detail about especially formative parts of his life, such as going to UT, quitting a prestigious law firm, and running against an incumbent as the youngest DA of San Antonio.  He describes striking cases that are still pertinent 30 years later because they offer unique insight into unexpected aspects of the legal system, the worth of eye witness testimony, crossing ethical lines, and Millsap’s astounding ability to read people. 

[click on "Read more" after the jump to read the rest of Lillie's post!]

In this clip, Sam reflects on his role in the prosecution 
and eventual execution of Ruben Cantu, who he admits may have been innocent.
"I believed at that point in my life, naively, that eyewitnesses can be relied on." 
[To listen to more from Sam Millsap's interview, visit his narrator page at the TAVP website!]

Perhaps the most thrilling part of the interview is Millsap’s description of the Genene Jones case—the fact that it was the inspiration for a Stephen King novel gives a pretty good sense of the suspense. Transcribing and auditing this part of the interview was like listening to an audio book. Although the details of this serial-baby-killing case are gripping and intriguing, the most fascinating part of this section of the interview is Millsap’s description of the creativity needed to find alternate ways of collecting information. 
It was always, always, always, always about the use of the press and frankly, the manipulation of the press and the media[…] That’s what I knew at the time was wrong but at the same time believed—and still believe—was justified under the circumstances.
I had never seriously considered the importance of the media in solving court cases or the relationship between the DA and the press, but there is actually a crucial dynamic between the two—a dynamic that sometimes crosses ethical lines. The importance of creativity also comes through in the following quotation:
One of the things that I’ve found is that I talk to my barber about things that I don’t talk to anybody else about. And so, as a result, I’ve sort of come to this conclusion that barbers and hairdressers are real key people in our society, so when I’m taking depositions, one of the questions that I always ask, and everybody thinks it’s just bizarre, is, ‘Who cuts your hair?'
In this particular case, Millsap flies out to Washington to talk to this guy’s barber; 2 hours later, the case was settled privately.  I found this interview extremely insightful because it made me understand the need for creativity even in an institution with such a rigid foundation.

The technical aspects of transcribing and auditing the Millsap interview were equally engaging and informative. I realized that the auditor/transcriber take liberties—as they must—and much is up to their own discretion—it isn’t possible to simply type out word for word. I began to wonder about how the transcriber’s personal style affects the interview in question: does it change the interview? Is it even possible to transcribe an interview without altering the voice of the narrator? I think that while the content remains the same, light fingerprints are inevitably left by the transcriber— it’s impossible to capture the spoken word in writing. I realized that these transcripts are extraordinarily useful (especially when formatted with tables of contents, further information, etc.), but they are only tools that must be used to supplement the interview and it is imperative that the interviews be watched.

Watch and listen to parts of Sam Millsap's interview on the TAVP YouTube page!

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