Jefferson County judicial community pioneering advanced audiovisual evidence system via public-private partnership
By Robert Hadley
In every court case, there’s a little bit of theater involved. In fact, it can be quite a production, requiring plenty of technical support. Just ask self-proclaimed former theater-guy-turned-lawyer Patrick Michael.
A partner in the Litigation Department of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP’s Louisville office, Michael recounts what it takes to put on a trial in the electronic age: Laptop computers, projectors, document cameras, 8-foot portable screens and cabling to connect it all is typical. The gear must be transported to and from the courthouse, assembled and disassembled, to allow jurors to see the evidence. Court staff does not handle this for attorneys. And while Kentucky courtrooms do have video and audio recording systems in place – the commonwealth was a national leader in implementing these systems in the 1990s – that technology does little to automate or facilitate presenting evidence.
Michael and other members of the Louisville Bar Association, along with Jefferson Circuit Court Judge McKay Chauvin, formed Jefferson Courtroom Upgrade Project Inc., a non-profit corporation whose mission is to equip Jefferson County’s courtrooms with state-of-the art audiovisual systems.
The new equipment will interface with Jefferson Circuit Court’s existing video recording system and will include two ceiling-mounted projectors, a second projection screen on the wall opposite the jury box, touch-screen monitors with interactive telestrator capability at counsel tables and on the witness stand, a document camera, a CD/DVD player, and built-in inputs for laptops, iPads and other electronic devices
“We’re changing the way we communicate with jurors in Kentucky,” Michael said.
Formed in 2011, JCUP initially set out to raise $800,000 to upgrade the 13 courtrooms in Jefferson Circuit Court’s facilities in the downtown Louisville Hall of Justice. So far, the group has raised $619,000 toward its goal. The first courtroom to be outfitted is that of Judge Chauvin, the project’s initiator. Chauvin’s Division 8 courtroom serves as a working model to illustrate the plan to potential donors.
“It’s a sort of very cool public-private partnership,” Chauvin said of the digital audio-visual equipment upgrade. “Members of the bar and other end-users are essentially pre-paying a user fee for equipment the state doesn’t have the money to give them.”
With that upgrade, hauling tables, projectors and screens, then running all the necessary cables, will be a thing of the past – it will all be in one place to eliminate the hassle. Witnesses no longer will have to duck to avoid casting a shadow on the projection screens behind them – the projectors will be mounted in the ceiling.
Counsels can display two images simultaneously to the jury, perhaps a document on one screen and an X-ray on the other. In the case of X-rays or other diagrams, the witness (for example, a physician) could use a telestrator to draw annotations on the X-ray, much the same way television sports announcers can diagram football plays on screen.
Perhaps the key advantage of the new system is that it will allow judges to insert pieces of evidence into the video recording of the trial, which in Kentucky constitutes the official court record. This means in cases of appeal, subsequent judges can more closely see what jurors at the original trial saw. For example, the official video record of the trial would include the evidence projected on screen as the witness discusses it. Formerly, such evidence was submitted as separate documents appeals judges had to view as they watched and listened to the recording, matching up and coordinating it themselves.
The new system, which will be compatible with a lawyer’s PC, Mac, iPad or other tablet computer, comes at a price tag of approximately $60,000 per courtroom, Michael said. The fundraising campaign was geared toward private donations from Louisville Bar Association members. Donors can spread their giving out over the campaign’s three-year life span. The largest single gift was $30,000, with most attorneys pledging smaller amounts, such as $1,000 a year for the campaign’s duration. Some attorneys regard the amount as a bargain.
“Once you explain this project to a trial lawyer,” Michael said, “they say, ‘Is that all you’re asking me for?’”
Court drama spurred advancement
The evidence-presentation system that JCUP is implementing complements Kentucky’s existing system for videotaping trials, which has been in place some 30 years. About a decade after Kentucky implemented its original videotaping system, the state in the early 1990s became the first in the nation to allow videotape to constitute an official court record.
The new digital evidence system being implemented in Jefferson County is designed to work seamlessly with the existing court record system.
Jefferson Audio Video Systems (JAVS), the vendor implementing the current upgrade, helped install the original system in some 400 courtrooms across the state, said Kurt Maddox, JAVS’s chief evangelist.
Even though his official title, chief evangelist, has a New Age, sort of Silicon Valley ring to it, Maddox is a down-to-earth guy, grounded in reality and well in command of both the history of JAVS and where it is going. The Louisville company is one of the top providers in the nation, having done more than a thousand installs. Right now, the company is working with Nevada and more than 30 other states to implement video recording technology for use during trials, and has even built an international market for its services, including the courtrooms of Malaysia.
JAVS celebrated 30 years in business last year and traces its origins back almost to the dawn of the VCR age, which happens to be the very beginning of video in Kentucky’s courtrooms.
Back then, the official court record was created by a court reporter, Maddox explained. This employee hired by the courts used a stenotype machine to create a shorthand record of the trial, which was later converted into a typewritten, word-for-word printed manuscript of everything said as the case was tried. Such official court records are very important because appellate courts rely on them heavily if a verdict is appealed.
One of the problems, Maddox said, is that under the typewritten system in place 30 years ago, the work product produced by the court reporter technically belonged to the reporter and not the courts. Lawyers planning an appeal had to directly contact the reporter to obtain a copy of the trial. Depending on workload, there could be a several weeks lag as the reporter created the typewritten record.
Add to this recipe the ingredients of workplace strife that had developed during this early ’80s timeframe, the threat of a court reporter strike, and you had a disaster waiting to happen. The story from that time of specifically how the relationship between Kentucky’s courts and their reporters reached the breaking point is one Maddox knows from many tellings.
A member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang was convicted of murder and his attorney had filed an appeal; months had gone by and the court reporter for some reason still had failed to produce the transcript the appeals panel needed to review the case. After much haggling, the court reporter reached a “line in the sand” moment and went into hiding with the transcript.
A judge issued a warrant for the court reporter’s arrest if she didn’t produce the transcript. Exasperated, the judge sent the court reporter a message through her attorney explaining that the delayed appeal case involved a member of the Hell’s Angels.
“So either you tell us where you are and get over here with this record so this individual can proceed with his constitutional right to appeal,” Maddox recounted, “or we’re going to just let him know who you are.”
The reporter quickly produced the transcript, according to the story, and court officials learned from the experience.
Kentucky courts were early tech adopters
After this withheld-transcript episode, attorneys and judges alike were ready to explore different options for creating a different form of official trial records, something that would render moot potential problems with physical transcripts. Their quest led to Kentucky becoming a national leader in using video in the courtroom.
JAVS founder David Green had worked with courts and built relationships with several judges, which moved his firm high on the list of consultants for the new project, Maddox said. Its systems, now in place in 400 courtrooms across Kentucky, use a bank of video recorders synchronized to microphones throughout the chamber. Video images that accompany the audio record being captured automatically switch among whichever microphone is producing the most sound to key on witnesses, lawyers and judges as they speak.
Systems that began with videotape and VCRs have graduated through the years to become fully digital and now use solid-state DVR technology. In 1985, the audio-video recording systems replaced court reporters and transcripts to become Kentucky’s official court record. (Note: This is only true of state courts. Federal courts still use court reporters and transcripts.)
Kentucky was among the first to make such a change. Indiana state courts are only now considering a move away from court reporters and typed transcripts, which commonwealth courts officials estimate saves $24 million in expense each year.
Maddox, the JAVS evangelist, likes to point out that the automatic systems create efficiency.
“All the things that happen to all human beings – myself included – happen to court reporters,” he said. “Human beings get sick, they have personal issues, fender benders and can be late for court. If a court reporter can’t make it to work, and a fill-in isn’t available, you literally can’t have court that day.”
Despite their increased reliability, audio-video equipment has its own set of caveats. Human error can still come into play, Maddox said, specifically regarding maintenance necessary to ensure the equipment works properly. Some courts still use older systems and the company several years ago bought “lots” of VHS equipment to ensure ongoing access to all the records.
Founded in 1981, JAVS leveraged expertise it developed in its home state to become a top U.S. court technology company and now does $15 million in business annually. There has been steady growth, even through recent recessionary conditions, Maddox said. Adding 10 positions the past four years, JAVS now has 85 employees.
Evolving with juror expectations
JCUP’s initial $800,000 budget allows for installation and the first year of maintenance, Michael said.
JCUP’s organizers say that bringing some of the tools of television production into the courtroom is one more necessary step in the evolution of how technology influences the way we learn.
John Phillips, a member of JCUP’s fundraising committee, recalls that when he went to college, verbal lectures were the preferred mode of teaching.
“Everybody seems to believe now that younger folks can’t learn without some type of visual aid,” he said. “I’m not sure I completely agree, but it may come down to the fact that it’s easier to reach people this way.”
Phillips, who recalled the difficulty of transporting audiovisual equipment to the courthouse versus the alternative of using flip charts, posters and other almost primitive displays to communicate with juries, welcomes the changes the new evidence presentation will bring.
“I hope storytelling doesn’t go by the boards, but I think we’re going to see more and more of this because people’s attention spans are shorter and they’re used to accepting information verbally as well as visually. I don’t see us going back.”
Robert Hadley is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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