October 31, 1999 By Raymond Dussault
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
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