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COLUMN ONE : Jury Out on High-Tech Courtroom : Computer animation, televised testimony and other innovations could streamline the justice system. But they also raise fairness questions and worries about abuse.

December 17, 1993|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outside the Long Beach Courthouse is a bulletproof kiosk--a computerized facility operating 24 hours a day--that allows people to pay traffic tickets, schedule court appearances or go to traffic school in English and Spanish.

This week, Orange County voted to spend nearly $2 million to establish a computerized system that will one day enable attorneys to file legal documents electronically and allow citizens to inspect legal records at their local libraries.

Some experts believe that a "courtroom without walls" could be in use in less than 30 years, allowing litigants, witnesses and even defendants to participate in trials without appearing in the same place.

In a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit in Milwaukee in 1989, two witnesses went to a London hotel room that was converted to a makeshift studio. There, they were sworn by a British barrister before testifying on a video screen in the Wisconsin courtroom. Since then, courts in Florida and New York have used televised testimony in civil cases when both sides have agreed to it.

But what of the 4th Amendment, which gives defendants the right to confront their accusers as a part of receiving a fair trial? Does questioning a witness on a television screen afford a cross-examining attorney the same opportunities to raise the key element of reasonable doubt?

"It does dilute the ability to confront and cross-examine the accusers," said Milton Grimes, a top Orange County criminal lawyer who is representing Rodney G. King in his civil lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles.

"Any time you don't have a live person there to examine, it's going to have a negative effect, because the jury can't really observe their demeanor, their behavior, their reaction," he said.

There is a huge amount of money to be made, as well as to be saved, in developing new courtroom technologies. Dozens of small start-up companies across the nation recognize the lucrative market represented by the vast and often antiquated judicial system.

Although some of the time-saving technologies should have no effect on a trial's outcome, others could. Some, at the very frontier of technology, are calculated to advance the interests of civil litigants and are aimed at the well-heeled market of trial lawyers.

Complex, multimillion-dollar civil suits involving patents, product liability and construction defect cases--which pose concepts difficult for the average juror to grasp or follow--beg for technologies that can simplify and illustrate.

One response has been the laser disc retrieval system, versions of which have been developed by companies in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. One such system was used in the federal trial of police officers charged with violating King's civil rights.

Combining compact disc and supermarket bar code technologies, the system enables attorneys to transfer thousands of exhibits--posters, charts, photographs, documents and videotaped transcripts--onto laser discs. At the touch of a bar code wand, these can be called up on 60-inch television screens in the courtroom.

Under cross-examination, witnesses can be confronted by images of themselves in earlier, videotaped depositions, giving contradictory answers. Instead of being handed from juror to juror, photographs, documents and charts appear instantly on screen for examination.

Plaintiffs using the system won a $6.75-million settlement in a 1991 San Diego suit, and attorneys for both sides credited its use for the size of the award.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Kevin W. Midlam, who presided over the case, credited the system with saving seven trial days and predicted that much more time could be saved if both sides used it. He has touted the new system at legal technology seminars around the state.

But Midlam was concerned enough about the fairness issue to order the plaintiff, who had the system, to show the defendant how to call up images on the screen to support his case. Experts agree that the technology that lies just beyond computer-generated animation is "virtual reality": The sensory experience that can take viewers inside a computer-generated environment, thanks to a helmet or wraparound goggles.

Are we looking at a future that includes lawyers, wearing virtual reality's control "glove," guiding judge and jurors through a multidimensional re-enactment--called "cyberspace"? At current prices, such a trip would cost up to $100,000 a minute to create and display.

Some experts predict that jurisprudence could even be on its way to a "virtual courthouse," a structure defined by concept rather than by concrete, an idea rather than a place. But others say that concept may be limited by imagination, not technology.

"We are a long, long way from people being willing to accept that," USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said. "The idea of eliminating the trial as a place is such a radical change as to be a long way off. It may be possible now, but I think it will be a long time before people will be willing to accept it."

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