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A glimpse inside the electronic courtroom of the future

By Curtis J. SitomerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 1985


Colleagues call them the ``Mario Andrettis of court reporting.'' They are a new breed of court stenographer, who, armed with computer technology, can take down rapid-fire testimony faster than a judge can bang his gavel.

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But there is more than superficial typing speed involved here. The new technology lies at the heart of a whole move toward the electronic ``courtroom of the future'' -- a thrust that could have an important impact on the United States legal process.

A fully equipped electronic courtroom is not yet operating in the real world administration of justice, although several law schools do sport mock trial facilities with push-button terminals and computer screens.

This notwithstanding, hovering above downtown Detroit -- on the 16th floor of the City-County Building -- is the experimental computerized courtroom of Circuit Judge Robert J. Colombo Jr. Here computer terminals sit on the judge's bench, lawyers' table, and jury box. And a court stenographer quietly records testimony which, within seconds, reappears on the terminal screens.

This process affords instant retrieval of proceedings including on-demand review of cross-examination and other courtroom oratory by opposing lawyers, the judge, and the jury. It also allows counsel the opportunity to review verbatim proceedings each day via computer printout.

The potential is almost boundless, says Judge Colombo, whose courtroom now doubles as a trial setting and training ground for court reporters gearing up for the new technology.

A small group of observers recently viewed a reenactment of an actual trial interrogation in the Judge Colombo's Detroit courtroom:

Attorney: Your name, please?

Witness: Betty Jones

Attorney: Your relationship to the defendant?

Witness: His mother

Attorney: Were you on Spencer Street on May 21, 1976?

Witness: No. But my son was at my daughter's house there. . . .

This exchange appeared on computer screens for viewing throughout the courtroom within three seconds after each exchange -- almost instantaneously transcribed into understandable English from court stenographer Norma Jean Chanerl's computer shorthand.

Why is this so important?

Judge Colombo explains it in terms of clarifying testimony -- on the spot -- for trial participants. ``Lawyers are able to get transcripts [of testimony] at the end of each day [to review the record and plan for the next day's proceedings]'' he explains. ``This also assists jurors,'' the jurist says.

``If they have questions when they are deliberating, we can give them a printout of the testimony in the jury room. . . . They will also get a copy of my instructions on the law.''

The computerization of the taking of testimony also has significant impact on the appellate process. Now it often takes 11/2 to 2 years for challenged decisions from Judge Colombo's court and other Wayne County circuit courts to be reviewed by the Michigan Court of Appeals. ``For some cases, it takes as long as six months just to get the transcipts,'' Judge Colombo points out.

William C. Oliver, Wayne County's chief court reporter, says the new electronic process also can aid millions of hearing-impaired people who participate in trials as defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and jurors. Near-instantaneous screening of testimony, lawyers' arguments, and judge's instructions will put the deaf on equal footing with others who are part of the proceeding. Mr. Oliver points out that there are 225,000 hearing-impaired persons in Detroit alone. And he says the court has been required to bring in interpreters on the average of four times a month to accommodate those taking part in a trial.