Reach Out and Cross-Examine Someone: Courts Increase Use of Video Hearings
With Microsoft’s latest deal with Skype, videoconferencing is poised to dig its roots even deeper into our lives. I can remember watching Back to the Future Part II and thinking to myself, “Great Scott! Video phone calls seem so futuristic!” Well, the future is already here, and videoconferencing is now working its way into the various corners of our lives, including court houses.
Across the nation, court video hearings are becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Major cities in states like Georgia, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania have installed webcam and video camera stations in courtrooms and jail facilities. The technology is mostly used for preliminary matters and procedural hearings.
The main advantage here is that “virtual” hearings are saving courts money. Pennsylvania has already reported an astounding $30 million in savings so far. Georgia has reported $600K, and $50K for Ohio. The reduced costs are mostly due to the fact that the states can reduce the number of inmates that they have to shuttle back and forth between detention centers and courtrooms.
The video technology is also providing courts with other benefits, too. Courts who use the videoconferencing are reporting a decrease in their docket loads. This is great, as major courts are often notorious for being backlogged. Video conferencing also appears to help with security concerns, especially for cases involving violent offenders.
On the other hand, I can identify several aspects that might raise concerns with court video hearings. First off, every defendant in a criminal case has a 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses at trial. Debate has been raised as to whether a video appearance would satisfy the Confrontation Clause in the 6th Amendment. In my opinion, it doesn’t, because a person making a video appearance simply isn’t there physically, which is the main point.
Granted, it doesn’t appear that courts will be using video technology for witnesses or other key parties to a trial. However, allowing a witness or defendant to testify through webcam is not an impossibility, and courts need to anticipate this happening. Courts will need to review the right to confrontation very thoroughly as this technology becomes more widespread.
Another concern is that some trial lawyers disagree with the idea of cross-examining a witness and presenting their arguments through a monitor screen. Many litigators employ certain visual cues during trial to help get their point across. Now, I’m not talking about overly dramatic Jim Carrey-style courtroom acting (which is prohibited in court anyhow). What I’m referring to are the subtle nuances that all good trial attorneys employ when examining a witness.
For example, lawyers are trained to use visual cues to emphasize their points, such as eye contact, standing at a certain place at key points, and making hand and arm gestures. These basic person-to-person signifiers will definitely be less effective if the witness is hiding behind a camera, and the attorney is not even physicially in front of them. The jury too, would have to base their analysis on the surreal image of a lawyer addressing an electronic screen.
So in my opinion, webcam technology is great for courts, and I applaud the benefits that they deliver to courts. I just think that for now they should be limited to the less critical administrative portions of trial, where presentation is not a major factor.
Oh and one last point- you should take a look at what video technology has done for the aesthetic appearance of the courtroom itself. If you look at the image to the left, this is a picture of how a courtroom would appear when fully equipped with computer technologies. At first I thought it was a glorified cybercafe. It could even pass for a scene from Star Trek. I’d probably be totally distracted as a juror if I had to sit in one of these spacecraft-looking venues.
The finely laminated wood paneling in the courtroom is slowly getting overrun by shiny plasma screens, black plastic cameras, and chunky projector screens. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that this is affecting the overall atmosphere that a courtroom should have. Well, that’s the future for you. We can’t really go back in time, so the best we can do is deal with it and roll with the good times.