High-tech court brings continents together

Mock trial of terrorist at William and Mary praised by jurists

`A remarkable experience'

April 15, 2001|By D. Ian Hopper

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - From a college in England, a barrister questions his star witness, an aging green-haired hippie whose answers are beamed across the globe from Australia. Jurors murmur with surprise as prosecutors re-create an in-flight jet collision with lifelike digital animation.

And a judge supervises it all from Virginia - at times talking to a camera that transmits his image to the prosecutor across the ocean, watching on a monitor.

The courtroom of the future - complete with two-way remote testimony, three-dimensional images of evidence and automatic speech transcription - had its first trial recently, albeit a mock one.

The recent experiment from Courtroom 21 in this Colonial American town is getting positive reviews, despite a few technical glitches.

`We're doing it to learn'

"It was a remarkable experience, and the people here have done a great service to the courts," said James Rosenbaum, a federal judge in Minneapolis who volunteered to preside over the mock criminal trial.

The fake case involved a terrorist bomb attack aboard a U.S. military plane, which then collided in the air with a civilian airliner.

The trial's organizers said their goal wasn't just to show off technology but to explore issues like usability, fairness and ethics.

"We're doing it to learn what happens when you use all the technology available at our disposal to determine the legal and ethical questions that occur when you have a high-stakes case," said Fred Lederer, director of Courtroom 21 at the College of William and Mary's law school.

Courtroom 21 is ringed with flat plasma television screens, including one behind the witness stand and one at the prosecutor's desk, and smaller LCD monitors are installed on every desktop.

Several camera domes hang from the ceiling to record and project every move, and every document and piece of evidence can be digitally projected on monitors for the jurors and audience in the room or on the other side of the world.

While futuristic, some of the technology already is growing in use.

Lederer said 300 to 500 high-tech courtrooms are in use in the United States and Australia. Lederer's courtroom was used as a model for the War Crimes Tribunal in the Netherlands, and his team is working with the Federal Judicial Center to develop a handbook about courtroom technology for judges and lawyers.

Animation technology

The crucial evidence of the trial, a photorealistic animation, held the courtroom stunned by its authenticity.

The video depicted a U.S. Air Force cargo plane and a passenger jet flying over London, both dodging violent weather and moving within several hundred feet of each other. Suddenly a small bomb on the military plane explodes, hurtling the disabled aircraft into the civilian airliner and causing a catastrophic collision that rains debris over downtown London.

Joe Reynolds, chairman of Annapolis-based FTI Consulting, which created the animation, said his company has designed thousands of courtroom animations for all types of cases.

"A three-dimensional moving object is so powerful for a jury to understand, and we find when it's used properly - and it has to be admitted by the court - it can be a very useful part of the presentation," Reynolds said.

More traditional technologies also were used, such as a mechanical Braille reader to assist a blind witness and a live language translation service.

There were several computer presentations, including one that showed a 3-D model of a chemical compound that could be rotated and twisted with the touch of a finger.

Rosenbaum, the judge, already has some high-tech experience. His courtroom in Minneapolis is wired to allow remote testimony by video.

"I have found that they work very well, that juries are completely accepting of it, and that once they get used to it the lawyers like it a great deal," Rosenbaum said.

"I find it speeds up cases and makes them more comprehensible, which by and large is not a bad combination."

Rosenbaum said video teleconferencing is commonly used in appeals cases and is gaining acceptance in civil litigation. Due to the right of defendants to confront accusers, however, Rosenbaum and many other judges are reluctant to allow them in criminal situations.

"It's easy to call you a rat behind your back, it's real easy to call you a rat from a thousand miles away," Rosenbaum said. "But it's a lot harder when we're nose to nose."

The trial wasn't glitch-free.

Audio from the three continents sometimes was delayed, hampered by echo or too soft to be heard. Student lawyers sometimes fumbled with high-tech gadgets. And a fire alarm went off at the British studio.

But the participants still had to remind themselves the trial wasn't real.

"Right now, we are impressed it worked at all," Lederer said. "Considering what we thought might happen, it was incredibly good."

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