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Order in the court

James Starr, clerk of the U.S. District Court in Concord, N.H., checks to see that the court's videoconferencing system is up and running. The courtroom is wired with cameras, microphones and video displays so that hearings can be conducted over ISDN lines between judges in Concord and inmates in out-of-state federal prisons.

Step into Courtroom No. 4 at the U.S. District Court in Concord, N.H., and you'll notice PCs sitting on the judge's bench, the clerk's table, the lawyer's benches and the questioner's podium located in between opposing counsel.

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There's even a large, flat-screen monitor on the wall behind the witness box, and the jury box contains three large-screen televisions for viewing evidence and other video footage related to the case.

Not exactly how you might envision today's courtroom, especially if you base your impressions on popular courtroom-based television shows such as "Judging Amy" and "Law & Order."

But the New Hampshire court, which ranks 70th in size out of 94 federal court districts, is pushing the envelope of courtroom automation technology behind the leadership of James Starr, the district's clerk of courts.

Starr, who acts as the CEO of the court (the three appointed judges are the board of directors), started integrating technology into the courtroom with federal grants about two years ago. The court's administrative office in Washington, D.C., began giving money to courts with "big prison populations and a lot of [geographical] space to cover," Starr says. "They were looking for cheaper, better and safer ways to deal with the prison population."

Starr and his staff came up with the idea of implementing a videoconferencing system to communicate with people without having to transport them from jail to the courthouse. New Hampshire has no federal prison within the state limits, meaning people scheduled to appear before the court have to be transported from out of state and housed in the local state prison.

This can be an expensive proposition considering the court hears roughly 125 criminal cases per year and scores of prisoners' rights arguments from inmates claiming their due process was violated.

Once he had administrative approval, Starr put a proposal out to bid, and the contractor selected to do the project, Telamon of Carmel, Ind., brought in VNCI of nearby Portsmouth, N.H., as a subcontractor. Implementation planning began in earnest more than a year ago and installation got underway last February, says Bob Davenport, PC systems coordinator for the court.

VNCI used the existing phone wiring and VidModems connected to a PC to deliver high-quality video. VidModems work similar to DSL connections in that the phone can be used for normal conversation while data is delivered at a higher frequency over the same line. A central switch - basically a specially built computer with a custom telecom board built in - connects the desktop-based endpoints with each other. The link to the outside world is ISDN.

All judges and key members of the administrative staff have desktop conferencing units they can use to talk to one another within the building, including conferencing up to four people simultaneously. Only a single 384K bit/sec ISDN line is available for connecting to the outside world, so that has to be scheduled accordingly.

The marvel of the whole system is Courtroom No. 4, which is the most wired of the six in the building. The room is a video client in and of itself, with a single PC connecting it to the rest of the system. Three cameras positioned throughout the room show the judge, witness box and questioner's podium.

Microphones and speakers throughout provide the sound. Connected to the video system is the evidence display system (Elmo) for showing physical and document-based evidence to the jury and whoever may be conferenced in (Courtroom No. 1 also has videoconferencing built-in, but it has a less-comprehensive multimedia system).

"The judge has a preview monitor to see what video is going out of the courtroom," Davenport says, adding that the judge is in complete control of what people see on the monitors. "We've disabled the pan and tilt features [zoom is enabled] on the cameras because we don't want the judge or clerk [who can be passed control] creating amateur home videos."

Virtually anything happening in the courtroom can be passed onto the VNCI system. Each of the PCs at the lawyer's tables is equipped with light pens for highlighting pieces of documents. (Davenport calls this the "John Madden system," referring to the television football commentator.) None of the PCs are networked together or connected to the Internet for security and bandwidth reasons; only the video signal from each of the machines is used.

Unlike most courts, where judges get their own courtrooms, New Hampshire schedules judges to specific rooms based on the needs of a trial.

Videoconferencing has come in most handy for the court magistrate who has to hold hearings for prisoner issues and complaints. Most prisons now have two-way video equipment, so the magistrate can carry out the hearing while the prisoner remains locked behind bars.

Starr says Magistrate Judge James Muirhead is his most ardent user, although the three main judges are starting to use the technology more. A couple of judges have started to use the system to participate in meetings in Washington, saving on travel time up and down the coast.

"Videoconferencing is still new for the courtroom culture," Starr says. "We're trying to show the way for the bar and public on how it can be used."

Starr says that his current level of courtroom automation technology has saved his court 20% in trial time, providing a direct cost savings to the taxpaying public. For example, take the case of a doctor vacationing in California who was scheduled to appear at a trial to give testimony about some X-rays. Instead of flying the doctor back to New England, they had him go to a local copy center that offered videoconferencing so he could do a video call to the courtroom.

One problem that was encountered in getting the system up and running had to do with getting the sound and picture right. When the system first came on, there was a high-pitched screech across the audio because of feedback between the microphones and speakers, Davenport says. It has also been a challenge to get the proper lighting on subjects to eliminate bad shadows and weird color shades in people's faces. "Sometimes you can get a blue face showing up on screen from the reflection of the PC monitor," he says.

IP-based videoconferencing was not an option for a couple of reasons, Davenport says.

"We're federal, meaning we don't have endless funds to keep upgrading bandwidth," he explains. "Also, what do you do with the guys whose packets were killed [because a video call took precedence on the network]? You can't tell a judge that his data packets are less important than the videoconference next door."

Videoconferencing is not the end of the courtroom automation line for Starr and the New Hampshire court. A new jury management system was recently put into place, with improved e-mail, financial and document imaging systems following about every quarter.

"This building is the best in the country for infrastructure," Starr says. "We built the place for modification." Each of the electrical closets has excess conduit for adding wiring such as fiber optics.

For Starr it's about technology assisting in the meting out of justice. It's also about bringing the antiquated court system into modern time.


Contact Multimedia Editor Jason Meserve

Other recent articles by Meserve

Special Focus: Not the same old videoconferencing
Alternatives to point-to-point ISDN- and IP-based conferencing emerge.
Network World, 06/12/00.

VNCI software offers video for the masses
VNCI's Java-based video distribution VidNet System overlays a corporate telephone network to provide videoconferencing, broadcast and video-on-demand capabilities without placing a strain on the IP data network.
Network World, 04/17/00.


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