COLUMBIA, MO. — At the Boone County Courthouse, it used to take two hours to arraign prisoners - a process in which they were pulled out of their cells, then searched, shackled, and transported six miles by bus.
But these days, arraignments can be over in seven minutes - the time it took recently to charge three accused criminals in Judge Christine Carpenter's courtroom. The difference: The defendants stayed in county lockup, and appeared only via videoconference.
"After a while, you forget it's video. You become used to it," says Kevin Crane, the county's prosecuting attorney. "I'd like to see its use expanded."
During the past five years, federal and state courts around the country have adopted new videoconferencing technology that allows such remote access. At the same time, courtrooms themselves are being decked out with more sleek flat-panel TVs than a Best Buy showroom.
While some critics question whether such innovations put style ahead of substance
or compromise the rights of defendants, others argue that the technology saves time and money, particularly in civil litigation - and can increase security by averting the transport of dangerous criminals.
"We're starting to see a rapid spread in the use of advanced technology," says Frederic Lederer, a law professor at William & Mary and director of Courtroom 21, an experimental high-tech court. "You're increasingly finding courts that are using videoconferencing for one purpose - such as remote juvenile detention hearings - and then realizing their hardware will permit them to do witness testimony or something more."
For the Boone County Courthouse, videoconferencing has translated into money saved. Sheriff Ted Boehm estimates that the $80,000 cost of the technology paid for itself in less than three years.
Or, take the case of a doctor from New York, who was unable to appear at a malpractice trial in West Virginia because weather had delayed his flight. The doctor went to one of dozens of videoconferencing centers in the New York area and testified electronically. The matter was concluded in hours rather than days, and a lawyer in the case estimated it cost $1,000 for the video testimony, versus the $8,000 to $10,000 it would have cost to fly the doctor in for two or three days.
At Boston's Moakley Federal Courthouse, Judge Nancy Gertner is taking advantage of technology to enhance the presentation of evidence and testimony. Flat-panel television screens sit between every two jurors and on the attorney's tables. Using a touch-screen panel, Judge Gertner controls the screens, which can show anything from a piece of evidence to a pertinent page on the Web.
But not every judge feels comfortable with the equipment. "I have no idea of how to use any of this stuff," admits Boston Judge Rya Zobel, as she learns how to use the equipment along with the attorneys.
Michigan, meanwhile, is working on plans for the nation's first full-fledged "cybercourt," which was proposed by the governor last winter. According to his proposal, a judge and clerk would be alone in a courtroom, and would be linked to lawyers, parties, and evidence via videoconferencing and the Internet.
Legislation in support of the effort passed the Michigan House unanimously last month and is currently awaiting state Senate action. If approved, the virtual court is expected to be open for business next October.
Although many cite the money and time saved by videoconferencing, supporters may value more the increased security it can bring. Though not always Hollywood-esque, prison escapes during transfer between jail and court are not uncommon. Two weeks ago in Boone County, a prisoner escaped from a bus for half an hour following a court hearing. That particular appearance was not subject to videoconferencing from jail, but it might be in the future under an expanded use of the program, which is under discussion.
With Boone County already conducting nearly 1,500 video arraignments and other procedures annually, Sheriff Boehm believes it is a statistical probability that other escape attempts have been thwarted. "When you talk about the value of the system, you can't put a price tag on security. You're talking about the safety and well-being of people in the community, plus the officers."
While high-tech courts win the praises of judges and prosecutors, others are concerned they might eventually degrade the rights of defendants or otherwise tip the scales of justice. The right of the accused to confront a witness may bar felony trials from being conducted completely via videoconferencing, but even in civil cases, there is concern about losing the dynamic of live interaction. For example, jurors may not be able to fully weigh body language and demeanor in order to judge credibility.
There is also concern that attorneys can dazzle with sophisticated graphics or animation and potentially create an atmosphere in which the team who has the best special effects wins.
But Professor Lederer contends that the benefits outweigh the negatives. He estimates that wired courtrooms speed up proceedings anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. He says in a normal trial, an inordinate amount of time is spent literally walking around the courtroom, showing a piece of evidence to opposing counsel, showing it to the witness, taking it over to the jurors, and sometimes having them pass it from one to another.
Moreover, proponents of high-tech courtrooms argue that video screens improve the ability of jurors to understand what is going on, and that people tend to remember better when they have seen things as well as heard them.
"The system has traditionally been pretty rigid - for example, not even allowing jurors to take notes - and that impedes their ability to make a good decision, particularly in the case of long trials," says Paul Carrington, a law professor at Duke University.
So far, there appears to be little legal opposition to the encroachment of technology. For prisoners, opinion seems to be divided. Some like a break from prison routine, even if only for a bus ride to court and a fast-food meal. But for others, doing the "shackle shuffle" to court is humiliating.
"Frankly, I thought we were going to have a lot more resistance from defense attorneys, but they're some of the biggest fans of this," says Judge Daniel O'Hanlon, a West Virginia circuit judge and chairman of the state's judicial-technology commission. "They don't like going into jails any more than you or I. And the jails are often an hour or more away for them, so going there is lost time and billable hours."
In at least one case, the use of videoconferencing technology reached the US Supreme Court. A tourist couple from Argentina had been targeted and assaulted while on vacation in Florida. They did not want to return to Miami to testify, and one was ill. The judge arranged for a special videoconference from Buenos Aires. The couple testified remotely, and the defendant was convicted. As part of the appeals process, the Supreme Court declined to review lower courts' decisions that upheld the videoconferencing procedure.
Seth Stern in Boston contributed to this report.