The case of United States v. NewLife MedTech explored whether a high-tech startup that invented a new stent designed to open clogged heart arteries caused the death of the first patient to try the device.

The NewLife stent, when implanted into the artery of the patient, was designed to filter the blood, cleansing it of cholesterol. But after FDA approval, the company modified the device to cut the price of the product. The suit alleged that the modified stent, which was not resubmitted for FDA approval, caused U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Terrence Dillon to suffer a stroke and die.

Although what happened to the patient and why it happened is ominous - it triggered a federal manslaughter prosecution - the central issue in this instance was courtroom technology. On April 6, 2002, United States v. NewLife MedTech became the subject of a mock trial in Courtroom 21 a joint project between the College of William & Mary Law School and the National Center for State Courts - designed to test new ways of presenting evidence to jurors. Concentrating on how innovative technology can benefit legal systems around the world, William & Mary's Courtroom 21 has been a proving ground for cutting-edge courtroom techniques since 1993.

The MedTech case featured holographic medical evidence and "immersive virtual reality," both seemingly far-fetched technologies that may become important tools in future courtrooms.

Instead of telling jurors what happened in the case, the Courtroom 21 project attempted to use these two technologies to show jurors, actually putting them in the environment where the alleged crime occurred. Jurors viewed holographic images of the human circulatory system, where unlike looking at a photograph, the image appears three-dimensional when a juror moved his or her head.

With immersive virtual reality, jurors donned special goggles and viewed the operating room as if they were actually there - some of the jurors even became dizzy. Data from the operating room, including measurements and photographs, is entered into a computer, which forms the images seen through sophisticated goggles.

The trial also included judicial, attorney and witness appearances from remote locations via video conferencing. The jury eventually determined its verdict after viewing the evidence electronically.

"Instead of looking at something as a distant observer, [the juror] can now become part of that environment," said Fred Lederer, director of Courtroom 21. "It's the sobering conclusion that what we used to think of as science fiction is actually relatively easily done and relatively cheap today."

Courtroom 21's mission is to determine how technology can make courtroom procedures easier and more effective for lawyers, judges and juries. It also introduces technology to law students and courts around the world. Law students at William & Mary are among the first required to file their legal-skills documents electronically.

"Thousands of judges and court staff members have viewed Courtroom 21 and applied the lessons learned there back to their courts," said James McMillan, director of the National Center for State Courts. "We now have courts that regularly receive testimony in cases via video conference from other countries."

Constantly Testing Technology

Courtroom 21 holds an experimental laboratory trial each year; the MedTech case was the subject for 2002. But the project and its affiliates are continually testing technologies that could be applied in courtrooms around the world.

"Our overriding goal is to learn how to use appropriate technology to improve the administration of justice," said Lederer. "What we worry a great deal about is how can we help the state and local and federal courts of the U.S., as well as courts in other countries."

Courtroom 21 attempts to determine what technology works well in the courtroom and what doesn't, and how that technology affects the court process. "We spend a lot of effort trying to deal with

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor