Closed-circuit Tv System Focuses On Bond Hearings

August 04, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

The People's Court it's not.

But then the new closed-circuit television system the county started using for bond hearings last week was never meant to be entertaining. It was designed for security. Defendants remain at the detention center while a judge in District Court decides what bond, if any, to impose.

From the bench, the judge uses a video-game style keyboard. Miniature digital cameras take pictures of the defendant, the defendant's attorney and the judge.

The cameras, which look like two small speakers on top of a 26-inch TV set, focus automatically, use normal lighting and need no special acoustical equipment.

By playing with the keyboard, the judge or an assistant can tilt, pan, zoom in for close-ups or pull back for wide-angle shots. The keyboard also can createa picture within a picture -- the special effect most often used last week.

On the courtroom set, the larger picture can show the scene at the detention center. The small inset picture shows a close-up of the judge. On the detention center set, the large picture and the inset are reversed.

The use of closed-circuit television to conductbail hearings may be new to Howard County, but certainly isn't novel, District Judge James N. Vaughan said.

"Three other counties (Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Harford) have been doing it for some time. But none (of the systems) are as sophisticated as ours," he said.

"Their cameras are stationary. The picture the defendant sees isthe whole room. Ours is a better system for people."

Thursday, while waiting for the bail hearing to begin, Vaughan zoomed in for a close-up of defense attorney Daniel H. Scherr in the detention center.

"Does it scare you a little bit, Mr. Scherr, seeing that picture?"Vaughan kidded, speaking into the system's microphone.

"I could live without seeing myself (behind bars)," Scherr answered.

"It gets worse," Vaughan told him.

"Someone asked if I was going to be onCable 15 (the county government channel)," Scherr said.

"Depends on your performance," Vaughan shot back.

The picture, although clear, is often jerky. If there is no movement, the picture freezes. When Scherr would pause, the picture would stop. When he would move his hands for emphasis, as he often did, the picture would hesitantly begin again.

The banter between the defense attorney and the judge belied the seriousness of the issue Scherr asked Vaughan to address.

Scherr wanted Vaughan to allow a Columbia man accused of raping an acquaintance at gunpoint released by putting up just 10 percent of his$25,000 bond.

As Scherr began his argument, the picture widened to show the 21-year-old defendant sitting next to him. At the edge of the picture stood a guard, arms folded. Vaughan told Scherr that because of the televised nature of the hearing, he and the defendant would not have to stand, as is courtroom tradition.

Although Scherr could see the judge, he could not see the courtroom audience. He planned to call the defendant's mother, but did not know if she was present.

It was a minor glitch. Vaughan called for her after Scherr finished his argument. The camera panned to focus on her as she came forward.

She told the judge she hoped her son would have the opportunity to prove his innocence. The judge said the question of the bond wasthe only issue being decided today.

The mother then told the judge "justice would not be served" by keeping her son in jail. She said she was a psychotherapist "willing to stand by him."

Vaughan kept the bond at $25,000 but agreed to allow the defendant to post 10 percent, on condition that he have no contact whatsoever with the allegedvictim -- "avoid her like the plague," he warned.

"I can't emphasize this enough," Vaughan said, staring into the television set. "I am sure your attorney will explain this to you in far stronger terms than I can."

Afterward, prosecutor W. William Cookson said that while the system is still "awkward and everyone has to get used to it," he does not think the defendant is denied any due process. "It's a good idea worth trying," he said. "It saves the county a lot of manpower time."

Defense attorney Scherr refused comment.

Vaughan, who said he is "old-fashioned" enough to have been leery of the system initially, said, "I like it so far. The defendant is not put off by it.There are not any insurmountable problems. The security benefits aretremendous, the cost savings significant."

It cost the county about $110,000 to purchase the system, and another $50 a month in phone bills.

County officials estimate the system will pay for itself in12 to 15 months.

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