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Courtroom video conferencing gets mixed reviews

Jefferson County Circuit Court gives new technology a trial run
Jefferson County Circuit Court's first attempt Nov. 7 at video conferencing with jail inmates had a mixed reaction from attorneys.
   The courtroom gallery was bustling with activity as several local attorneys and others peeked in to check out the new system.
   On the courtroom floor, Judge Dan Ahern was still on the bench, the prosecuting and defending attorneys were still at their respective tables, but the jailed defendant appeared as an image on a flat video screen on the wall. Under the screen a video camera pivoted back and forth, broadcasting images and sounds of the courtroom back to the inmate at the jail.
   During the trial-run one status hearing was conducted, four inmates were arraigned, and one sentencing was attempted but stopped when it was decided to bring the inmate to the court room in person instead. In the future, video conferencing could also be used for pretrial hearings at the discretion of the judge.
   Some of the defense attorneys were caught off guard and were noticeably uncomfortable with the arrangement.
   "There was no notification we were going to use video conferencing today," attorney Barbara Bagg told the judge, noting she had forms she needed the defendant to sign and was expecting him to be at the courtroom in person. The papers could have been faxed back and forth, but the jail's fax machine was also not working, it was mentioned.
   The judge said it would be all-right for her to go to the jail and get the papers signed following the video conferencing.
   Other lawyers expressed concern over having defendants appear in court by video instead of in person.
   "In the name of convenience, technology is being used to dehumanize the proceedings. The defendants don't get a feeling of how truly important this is as they would if they were sitting in the courtroom," commented attorney Ed Sites.
   Sitting next to him, Lawyer Dave Glenn observed, "I looks like some of the defendants are afraid to say anything without having their attorneys with them."
   Glenn said video conferencing is used in Deschutes County's court proceedings and explained that jail inmates have the option of having their lawyer at the jail to advise them. However, with attorneys in the courtroom and clients appearing by themselves on-screen, Glenn said there is always the possibility that a client could "blurt out" something inappropriate.
   For advising clients from the courtroom Glenn said, "There's supposed to be a phone where a lawyer can communicate with the defendant. But they don't have it set up yet here. We're just trying this and haven't got all the bugs worked out yet."
   Courtroom interpreter Walter Armstrong noted he will be at the jail to translate for all Hispanic inmates, but since his services are also needed for other cases conducted in the courtroom he will do a lot of traveling back and forth.
   Likewise, if inmates want their attorneys with them at the jail during hearings, it will create a logistical problem with lawyers having to travel continually between the jail and courtroom.
   Two weeks ago, prisoners were moved from the courthouse jail to the new jail approximately three miles away. When they were at the old jail prisoners were brought from cells in the basement to appear in the upstairs courtrooms for hearings. But with the change of jail location, continually transporting them to court became a problem, and that's why video conferencing is being tried.
   After viewing the procedure, Jefferson County District Attorney Peter Deuel said he thought the new system was "clear, understandable and an efficient way for the county and court system to handle a number of proceedings."
   He admitted, "The defense attorneys have issues with face-to-face contact, but that really isn't a problem for prosecutors."
   On the average, Deuel said four to six inmates a day appear in court, and it would require two deputies to transport inmates back and forth to the courthouse.
   Using video conferencing saves transportation costs, and avoids the former problem of inmates (being brought to court) intermingling in the hallway with victims and witnesses.
   "Not having to transport inmates is a cost savings for the county and a substantial safety benefit for society," Deuel said.