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Page last updated at 17:41 GMT, Friday, 12 November 2004

US courtrooms go hi-tech

Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
BBC Click Online North America technology correspondent

The legal profession may have a reputation for being traditional and conservative, but courts in the United States are pleading for a more hi-tech approach.

Sections of text can be highlighted by lawyers on screens for the jury

Courtroom 21 in Virginia claims to be the most technologically advanced law court on the planet.

Inside the ultra-wired complex, students and professionals learn how to master the latest equipment.

Gone are the cumbersome easels and overhead projectors - it is flat-screen heaven.

Everywhere you look inside Courtroom 21 there is a new gadget or computer being evaluated.

Even the floor is designed to be ripped up and refitted within seconds, to accommodate instant fibre optic cabling. Data can then whiz in and out and around the courtroom.

Fred Lederer, Director of Courtroom 21 at William and Mary Law School, says this makes the system much more efficient.

"It communicates information to judges and jurors more easily and better than ever before, and it saves a substantial amount of time and money."

Essential upgrade?

The court stenographer arguably has the most arduous job, tracking every word that is spoken during the course of a trial.

Until recently it took days to produce an official printed copy of the record. Now it takes seconds.

Mollie Nichols, assistant director of Courtroom 21, explains: "The court record manager will actually speak into this mask and will be saying every word that the lawyer, the witness and the judge is saying.

"The recording actually goes into a computer and a typewritten transcript is produced in real time."

Kenneth Lopez
If a picture is worth a thousand words, animation is worth millions
Kenneth Lopez, Animators at Law chief executive

As a precaution, the judge uses a hand-held pad that can control every device in the room. The judge can immediately stop anyone from seeing something they should not.

The jury can watch film clips or examine evidence up close, and lawyers no longer have to wade through mountains of paper documents, thanks to a bar code scanner retrieval system.

Courtroom upgrades have become almost essential, especially as the amount of digital evidence entered into court is increasing.

Whether it be electronic phone logs, online transactions, or long, complex e-mail chains, it is important that the evidence is presented in a clear and concise manner.

This is the job of Animators at Law, a firm based near Washington DC.

Power of animation

It produces 2D and 3D diagrams and flowcharts for a variety of legal cases, from plane crashes to industrial accidents.

A few seconds of explanation on screen can save days of tedious testimony.

Kenneth Lopez, chief executive of Animators at Law, says animation is a very powerful way of presenting evidence.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, animation is worth millions.

"Typically, if you see animation used on one side of the case, it's going to be used on the other side of the case.

"And you not only have the battle in the courtroom of the two major trial teams, you also have this battle of graphics and animation going on at the same time.

"It's fascinating stuff."

Aeroplane flight animation
Some information is much easier to convey using animation

One animation showed a flight affected by severe turbulence: an experience very difficult to convey to a jury.

Such an image can turn a case around. In that example the jury awarded 13 passengers $2.2 million for emotional distress.

Given results like this, it is not surprising that even the most traditional lawyers have realised that they need to adopt the new technology if they are to continue winning.

Patent attorney Allen Melser says: "We live in a television generation.

"Anything that can mimic that, and present the information so that it's taken in in the same way that it's normally presented in programming, just makes it much better for the attorney when he has to deal with the jury."

Courtroom animations are in high demand, especially during corporate fraud cases, where parties are willing to spend a small fortune.

Annemarie Miano, director of business development for Animators at Law, says: "We're working on billions of dollars' worth of cases every year.

"People are realising that about 65% of the population are visual learners, so they need to have the technology in the courtroom."

The experts agree there is one aspect of the legal system that is not likely to change, regardless of technological advancement: jury duty.

Putting jurors onto courtroom flat screens live from their living rooms probably will not happen for a long, long time, if ever.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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