Exit Robocop, Enter CyberJudge

High-tech courtroom helps Florida judges speed cases and distribute information.

by / October 31, 1999
They call it the "O.J. "courtroom.

It's a showpiece, a place for the tourists. Jurists from throughout the country were visiting Orlando this past summer, not to see Mickey Mouse, but to take a gander at one of the most technologically advanced courtrooms in the world.

"Even before the technology, people were already coming to visit Courtroom 23," said Matthew Benefiel, court administrator for the 9th Judicial Circuit in Florida's Orange and Osceola counties. "It is a stunning setting with a great observation balcony. Vendors use it as a demo site and judges and groups are always asking for tours. We have trouble scheduling it around actual cases because it is our high-profile courtroom and is getting a lot of use now."

Situated on the 23rd floor of the $200 million Orange County Courthouse, completed in 1998, Courtroom 23. It features a computerized evidence presentation system, realtime electronic court reporting and playback, voice-activated video conferencing, and recently began broadcasting cases live over the internet.

View From Above

At first glance, Courtroom 23 looks like an ordinary courtroom. But look up from the gallery and the perspective changes. Within easy view there are four 42-inch flat-screen plasma monitors on which spectators are able to watch the most detailed intricacies of court proceedings. No need to crane your neck to see evidence --crime-scene photos, x-rays, diagrams and attorneys' presentations are all broadcast on the gallery screens and the other 16 flat-screen monitors in the courtroom. There are screens at the judge's bench, the clerk's area, the tables for counsel, and 10 14-inch monitors in the jury box.

In most courtrooms, evidence entered into the record is shown or handed to witnesses and jurors, each of them turning it over, examining it and passing it along in Courtroom 23 evidence is scanned into the evidence-presentation system and immediately available for all to view. "More than anyone else, this system helps the jurors," said an enthusiastic Judge Jay Cohen. "For the rest of us, one of the biggest payoffs from the technology is in time and money savings. If there is lots of evidence and multiple parties, you'd be surprised how quickly the time adds up. We have from six to 14 jurors in a given case, including alternates. If you have to pass documents or a piece of evidence around to each of them hand-to-hand, it simply takes time. With this system, the evidence goes up once for everyone. Plus, it's better information and easier for the juror to understand. That means informed jurors and better decisions.

"I finished a vehicular homicide case [recently] where we had a witness explaining crime-scene photos. He was able to use the touch screen and point to the information he wanted to highlight to jurors. His touch was translated to arrows for all to follow the explanation."

Since the bulk of court proceedings are open to the public and media -- especially in Florida, where only cases involving children are regularly blocked -- the new technology, according to the court, does not present problems for the presiding judge. Still, Courtroom 23 adds options to an existing problem that arises for all judges during certain types of trials.

"There are just some photos that come up in court cases that are extremely gruesome," said Cohen, who added that he liked having control over the system with a single touch. "I have seen jurors and spectators visibly shaken by photos. Now, with the evidence-presentation system and the 42-inch monitors in the gallery, there just may be some photos too disturbing to foist on the gallery. This is true especially if family members of a victim are present."

"They retain full control from the bench or from their clerk's desk. A single touch on the screen and he or she can block information from the jury or gallery," explained Benefiel.

The whole system set the Ninth Circuit back $250,000, but that was still $50,000 under budget. Officials have already budgeted $100,000 for each of the next two years to ensure that Courtroom 23 stays technologically current. And none of the money was, or will, be generated from taxpayer funds. Instead all funds come from a portion of civil-case filing fees.

One reason the cost may seem relatively small given the hardware and level of sophistication involved is because, with Courtroom 23 being situated in the brand new courthouse, much of the infrastructure was already in place. The new courthouse included a centralized, digital, court-reporting system, a legal-research Network,
e-mail, and Internet access all linked thorough a Windows NT LAN. The LAN links the Orange County Courthouse, Orange County Juvenile Justice Center and the Osceola Courthouse. What Benefiel and his team did -- originally inspired by former Chief Judge Belvyn Perry Jr. -- was build new capabilities onto the existing backbone.

"The whole concept was Perry's baby. He had heard about Courtroom 21 up in Williamsburg, VA., and put us all on a plane to go see it," said Benefiel of another high-tech courtroom that helped define the Ninth Circuit's ideas.

The three key benefits of the courtroom are the ability to explain evidence more clearly, the ability to reduce those explanations to the printed page, and expanded public access to court proceedings, including live Internet broadcasts.

Not only does the evidence-presentation system reduce the physical time necessary to pass evidence around, it also allows attorneys and witnesses to "mark up" digitized materials such as X-rays or street intersections. If a police officer, utilizing a touch screen, illustrates through arrows and diagrams exactly how an accident occurred, that explanation can be printed out and handed to juries during deliberations. In addition, video and audio feeds can be run through the system. For the public, those explanations are now viewable on the many gallery monitors.

For people unable to visit the courtroom in person, the Ninth Circuit is now broadcasting its Courtroom 23 cases on the Internet. "It's not going to be like you are watching your television set but it will still be there, easy to access, easy to see. The audio will be realtime and crystal- clear, though the video may be a bit choppy at times," explained Benefiel. That video will be clearer than it would have been, though, had the Ninth Circuit not made some hardware changes after Courtroom 23 was finished. "We originally put in security-grade cameras, which were fine for video conferencing, and we have kept them for that, but we found out right away they did not have the right level of quality for live broadcasting. We replaced those with broadcast-quality cameras in August."

Surprisingly, with such a major undertaking, there have been few changes necessary at Courtroom 23, and even fewer challenges have arisen thus far. A great deal of thought went into the types of hardware installed so as not to disturb the clean sense of decorum with which we are familiar in American courts. Flat-screen monitors are expensive but, like the tiny unobtrusive cameras, they blend in subtly with traditional court furniture, and unsightly wires are hidden behind podiums, railings, walls and fascia. No longer do media representatives scatter cameras across the back wall, as everyone saw at the O.J. circus. Now they can plug in to live feed outlets outside of the actual court.

"It wasn't easy to get all this in and mounted," said Benefiel. "For example, the 42-inch-screen gallery monitors that are stuck way up the wall so even those in the observation balcony can see them are actually 50 inches across and weigh 50 pounds apiece. They weren't easy to mount."

"Really, training attorneys on how to use the technology has been the only challenge so far," added Cohen. "But, Matt and his team have already stepped into that gap. Before each courtroom use, a memo is sent to each attorney involved directing them to contact the MIS department for training. The training takes about a half-hour because the system is so user-friendly."

Courtroom 23 represents a quantum step forward in the quantity and quality of information available to those who need it. There is little doubt that the system will save time and money for courts, and shaving even a few days off interminably long high-profile cases will benefit everyone involved.

What remains to be seen is whether technology, by providing clearer data, will result in better-informed juries making better decisions. With Courtroom 23 in place, you can assess the result yourself -- just take a minute to travel to Orlando the next time the court is in session. It's only as far away as the return key on your PC.

Justice and Technology Editor Ray Dussault is also a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. E-mail him.