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Crime Lab Experts to Testify by Video in Torrance : Experiment Will Take Cameras to Court

February 13, 1986|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

TORRANCE — An experimental program that will allow Sheriff's Department crime laboratory experts to present testimony in municipal court without leaving the station will be unveiled here tomorrow by county officials.

The one-year program will enable the two criminalists who are assigned to the sheriff's satellite crime laboratory at the Torrance Police Department to testify from the station on a cable television hookup to a courtroom.

The program will be limited to cases involving misdemeanor drunk driving or narcotics possession, according to Robert Mimura of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, a panel formed in 1981 by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to study ways to improve the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will be given the option of having the criminalist appear in person, he said.

The experiment is intended to test the use of video technology in court and to find out how well the idea is accepted, Mimura said.

Mimura said the experiment, which will cost an estimated $80,000, is in response to a request made last year by the Board of Supervisors that video technology be explored as a way of increasing court efficiency and cutting costs. Until now, video has been limited to such uses as permitting spectators and reporters to watch and hear testimony over a closed-circuit system set up at the courthouse, he said.

Mimura said the Torrance experiment will be followed this spring by another one in Glendale, in which prisoners will be arraigned, or enter their pleas, without leaving jail. That program, scheduled to last six months, will cost about $50,000, he said.

Mimura and others involved in the Torrance experiment say they believe that the idea of having expert witnesses testify by video camera is untested, unlike the concept of the Glendale project, which has been successful in other municipalities such as San Diego. The Torrance experiment calls for one camera and a television monitor to be stationed at the Police Department, and another camera at the courthouse to be shared by five courtrooms. The judge, jurors and other court personnel will view the testimony on a 19-inch television monitor.

Close to Courthouse

Gardena Police Chief Richard Propster, who heads the criminal justice committee's technology development subcommittee, said the Torrance courthouse was chosen because the Police Department is only several hundred yards away, which reduces the cost of laying underground cable. Moreover, if a prosector or defense attorney objects to having the criminalist testify on camera, the expert can be summoned to appear in person without delaying the court proceeding, Propster said.

Propster and other county officials said that the details of the experiment were worked out over the last several months with representatives of the court, the district attorney's office, the Sheriff's Department and public defenders. Many discussions focused on how to maintain the integrity of court proceeding during the experiment, they said. One result of those discussions, criminalists will testify from a rather pristine room at the police station rather than from their laboratory--a backdrop that could distract the jury because of the paraphernalia used by the criminalists.

"The defense . . . didn't want a show-and-tell with the wonderful world of science behind it," Propster said. "So what it boils down to is that there will be a bland background."

'Mr. Wizard'

"Everybody acknowledged they should be put up there and not look like Mr. Wizard," said Michael Justice, who heads the public defender's office in Torrance.

While all those involved in the experiment say they are enthusiastic about the potential of such a system to speed up court proceedings and save the county time and money, they caution that it will take time to determine its impact.

Sandra Thompson, presiding judge of Torrance Municipal Court, said no one can predict such things as how juries will respond to watching a witness on television rather than in person.

"We have more questions about the procedure right now than we have answers," Thompson said.

Free Time

Capt. Donald Denison, who is in charge of the Sheriff's Department's Scientific Services Bureau, said that he views such a system, if implemented permanently, as a way to free criminalists to do more laboratory work instead of traveling from one court to another and waiting to be called to testify. On the average, the bureau's 46 criminalists--all but four of whom are assigned to the department's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles--are served with 15 subpoenas a week to testify in courthouses scattered all over the county, he said.

"In industry, time is money," Denison said. "But for us, it's casework accomplished."

Carl Fleming, one of the two criminalists assigned to the Torrance satellite laboratory, said that he typically is required to testify in a trial once a week, with each court appearance taking about two hours away from his normal duties. Although Fleming said he is withholding judgment on the merit of the pilot program, he said several test runs in front of the camera have made him aware that it could be harder--at least initially--to testify from outside the courtroom.

"I don't know if I can really put it into words," Fleming said. "It's just more difficult to concentrate on a line of questioning without the person asking the question being in front of you."

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