Clickability tracking pixel

Technology on Trial

The influence of Courtroom 21 is felt in real-life courtrooms around the world.

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 that both formally and informally," Lederer said. "Then as a consequence of that, we do education and training for judges and lawyers, and we do courtroom and other consulting."

Over the years, Courtroom 21 has become flooded with visitors from all over the world who come to discover technologies that may be useful to their operations.

The growing interest signals that tradition-bound judges and attorneys are becoming more willing to adopt new methods. "The little things that we take for granted in other parts of the world have not yet made it into the court world, except in some very adventuresome courts," Lederer said. "Courts have to be careful. You don't want someone sent to jail because we had a newfangled procedure that turns out to not be a good idea."

But as technology proves its worth in other areas, the courts take notice. Lederer estimates there are approximately 500 high-tech courtrooms worldwide and numerous other courtrooms with "pieces" of technology.

Courtroom 21 Models
Deemed the "dream technology court," and the "world's center for experimental work," Courtroom 21 now boasts approximately 25 affiliates worldwide, each using technologies pioneered by Courtroom 21 in actual court proceedings.

"They [Courtroom 21] alpha test it and we beta test in a live courtroom," said Matt Benefiel, court administrator for Courtroom 23, in Florida's 9th Judicial Circuit Court, one of the founding affiliates and a replica of Courtroom 21. "Then what works here we go ahead and export to the other courtrooms."

Affiliate membership costs $5,000, for which the affiliate receives discounts on technology of as much as 20 percent and direct access to Courtroom 21's technology research. "One of the biggest benefits through the affiliates and the network is cost avoidance," Benefiel said. "You learn the mistakes of others, and you don't make that mistake in your installation. That saves you money that's never calculated."

An international focus that comes with affiliation to Courtroom 21 gives members a feel for what's happening around the world. Members participate in tours to other countries, including Ireland, Canada and Australia.

Lederer recently helped guide a project that equipped the Alameda County, Calif., Superior Court - a Courtroom 21 affiliate - with high-speed wireless Internet access, a breakthrough that allows lawyers to conduct online research, transfer office files, print documents, access trial databases and receive e-mail while attending court proceedings.

"You're sitting in court, and somebody cites a case and instead of standing up telling the judge you're not familiar with it, you pull it up," said Boris Feldman, a partner with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a law firm located in California's San Francisco Bay area. "There's an efficiency advantage because you're sitting in court for hours waiting to be called, and you're doing work. And if you're on trial or in an extended hearing, you've got access to your whole office network and all the case files."

Because the network is completely independent from the court's existing system, there's no question of security. "It's like a public pay phone in that respect - completely separate, no physical overlap," said Michael Breyer, CEO of Courtroom Connect, which provided the service.

Saving Time
Evidence presentation technology, such as that used by jurors in the MedTech case, can reduce the length of a trial, according to Feldman. Jurors used notebook computers to retrieve and display evidence in the jury deliberation room. It's far more efficient than leafing through photocopied documents or a master sheet of evidence.

"Studies of display information show that most people are visual learners, at least in part," Lederer said. "If you are showing information to a judge or jurors - they're going to be doing a better job of understanding and remembering it. Everyone who has dealt with this area agrees that when you use evidence presentation technology in the courtroom, you have a massive increase in the speed with which the case is tried."

Evidence of the influence of Courtroom 21 on the world's courtrooms is popping up everywhere. Michigan Gov. John Engler recently signed a law creating a cyber-court that will be based on Courtroom 21. Engler has enlisted Lederer as a key adviser.

"We are seeing that most of the new courtrooms being built either have multimedia capabilities installed or the ability to add these features later," said McMillan. "Courtroom 21 has had a significant impact on the planning for new and renovated court facilities."

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor
E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs