How do you get trial transcripts without breaking the bank?

Researching a true crime novel and learned there are hundreds of pages of transcripts.  My options are:


1.) Read the law library's hard copy - in the law library since they can't be checked out  

2.) Pay $1.00 per page for the transcripts


I can't spend weeks in the law library, which is two hours' drive from my home.  And I can't pay thousands of dollars for the transcripts. 


Anyone ran into this in your research and writing of a true crime novel?  How did you resolve it? 




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Ask if you can take a digital camera into the library.  Photo each page.  You can read it on your computer the same way you would look at any other photograph.
Beautiful, Brian.  I'll ask.  And . . . sheesh!  Why'd I not think of that?  Great idea.



Normally I would agree with you, but by law, trial transcripts are part of the public record and therefore cannot be under copyright.  The fees you pay for them are for reproduction.  If Mary has a law library nearby, she shouldn't have a problem unless the library has a policy against it.  


I'm also a photographer and copyright laws are very important to us because stealing photos from the web is an industry.

Oh dear, Brian!  The thieves, the thieves.  We mystery writers love 'em, but I sure don't condone stealing images, although I'm sure I've even used a few: I always try to get permission first, though, not that that even makes it right.  I think we're all expected to give away every darn thing we produce, and I have no intention of doing that, so I feel doubly compelled never to violate copyright. 


Part of the joy of what I'm doing is learning about true crime writing, and already, even this early on, I'm beginning to see--to learn--important information about research methods. 


I really appreciate yours and Dan's and everyone's responses.  So helpful.  I'll definitely keep you posted on what I learn: just the facts.

Thanks, Dan.  Good point.  I'll double check.  Owe you one!
Probably because you aren't as sneaky as I am!  Ha ha.

Mary I've spent a lot of time in America -- pretty much from coast to coast -- researching true Mafia books and there are several ways to get at what you need. I've never heard of a buck a page, though.

When I needed a fairly big court filing from a case in the 1980s/1990s, I: located the court file number, contacted the court (this was in the Southern District of New York), and ordered it. It was considered historical and was stored in the underground apparently bomb-proof facility in Lee's Summit, Missouri. A couple of weeks later they notified me that it was at a court facility on Varrick Street. I went down. There were two steel pallets on wheels with about sixty banker's boxes of everything, from photos to transcripts to police reports to witness statements. It took a few long days to go through it and they nicely set me up with a photocopier. For some of the stuff I just took notes; other stuff I copied. No problem at all -- but was working off a pretty good advance, I admit.

I've had similar experiences, in Florida and San Francisco in particular. In both cities I was on vacation and before leaving Toronto identified some cases that looked interesting. I took a day off from relaxing and spent a couple of afternoons reading.

Another good source is from the media. Locate a reporter who did some in-depth coverage of the case you're working, call him/her up and take them to lunch. They often have reams of transcript, already paid for the their media outlet. I find when doing research overseas this is far more productive than trying to work through often confusing court systems.

If all this is too expensive or difficult, another avenue is to make a relationship with a lawyer in the case or the US Attorney. They can facilitate your needs.

I'm surprised at how few crime fiction writers take advantage of the stream of information in court filings. Or who don't attend active court cases, when they're able to. Even the little details can spark something. A former NYPD sniper, testifying in my 1980s case, for example was asked about his training. He said they trained with a dime balanced on the gun barrel -- they had to hold this pose for several minutes without the dime falling off. Another time I wandered out of an organized crime hearing in Toronto into the next courtroom. They were playing a wiretap and on it one of the accused referred to a "scatter". Sounded a lot more cool and authentic than saying "shotgun". For some reason these kinds of details engage my writing.

Hope that helps.



Check the courthouse where the case was heard. I've been finding most decisions and some case files online. Free.


Thanks, Jack.  Will do.

Lee, fabulous!  Thanks.  This is truly practical advice.  I had thought myself to copy the pages I need, from the thousands of pages of the trial transcripts, and try to take notes about the others.  I like the idea of using a camera, but I'm still unsure, based on what Dan and Brian are saying, whether that's copyright violation.  I, of course, would never use or quote the material without attribution; however, this appears to be a sticky legal issue, one I'd best remain cognizant of. 


I'm not working off of an advance, or any budget, at this point--other than my own.  I'm collaborating with the sheriff involved in the case, but . . . that's a heckuva lot different than working from the advance.  And, as you suggest, I've already scheduled an interview with the prosecutor on the case. 


I'm with ya, too, on the details.  I remember the first time I heard the word offed. Hmm, I thought, adverb used as a verb in a delightful way, and sounds much more exciting than just plain vanilla: killed.  Most recently, I've heard the word killing or murdering changed to murking.  Do you love language, or what!  Wonder what those words will be in couple of hundred years? 


Thanks, again, for the invaluable help on the transcripts, Lee.  Goin' to your profile now to check out your site and see your books. 


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