Video and digital stills have become staples of our judicial system.
by James Careless
Photo courtesy of the Center for Legal and Court Technology Today, judges and juries expect evidence to be presented using multimedia whenever possible; be it footage from a CCTV video camera or photos taken by an ATM machine.
That is why installing a quality presentation system is so important. Gone are the days when the clerk could just wheel in a television and VCR: For video and digital stills to stand up in court, they have to be displayed clearly, legibly and with as much resolution as possible.
Larry Compton knows courtroom presentations inside and out. A former New York State Peace Officer and Municipal Police Instructor, Compton helped create one of the first law enforcement digital evidence labs in New York State. Today, he is a Certified Forensic Video Analyst and Operations Manager at Forensic Video Solutions (FVS). Founded by respected forensic video analyst Grant Fredericks, FVS specializes in providing analysis, instruction and testimony in forensic matters.
“There is no one national standard that governs courtroom presentation systems,” Compton says. “There has been discussions among various groups about creating one, but in the interim there are a wide variety of presentation systems being used nationwide – varying widely in consistency and quality.”
PROVIDING THE SAME VIEW
Courtroom presentation systems should provide the judge, jury and counsel with the exact same view. That means that each position should have access to the same-sized monitor, placed at the same viewing distance as everyone else’s monitor.
The color setup and brightness should be as close to identical on all of the monitors as well. A car that appears to be red and dark on one display should not appear pink and bright on another. That is why it is important to acquire identical monitors for the entire courtroom. That maximizes identical image quality at the outset, and increases the likelihood the monitors will all age at the same rate (ongoing monitor recalibration to restore color accuracy is also recommended). Along with the monitors, “it makes sense to have a DVD player, and a Blu-ray player too,” he adds.
In addition to the video, courtroom multimedia systems have to be prepared to display any computer graphics or PowerPoints presentations. “Since so many lawyers are using laptops to store and playout their visual evidence, you need laptop docks that connect into the room’s LAN at the prosecution, defense and judge positions,” Compton says. “The network that you install in the room should have its own controlling computer, and the ability to simply accept laptop plug-ins for quick, easy-to-execute presentations,” he said, adding, “The host computer should also be configured such that someone can bring the evidence in on a data storage key, and just plug it into a USB port.”
RECOMMENDED SET UP
Because of the disparity between U.S. courtroom video systems, FVS’ forensic experts have constructed a portable courtroom video system based on the fundamentals already outlined. FVS loans or rents that system to courtrooms as need be.
So what does such a system look like? “We have six identical 22” LCD monitors at its core,” Compton replies. “We put a monitor on the bench, one at Defense, one at Prosecution, and the last three with the jury. These three monitors are spaced in front of the jury box, so that all of the jurors have a clear, head-on view of what’s being shown.”
All of the monitors are fed from a VGA distribution amplifier, which is connected to the laptop hosting the presentation. That ensures every monitor is receiving the exact same feed. Meanwhile, audio is delivered either by the monitor’s inboard speakers, or by using powered speakers at each of the viewing positions.
“We take care to secure and then stow away cables as much as possible, to prevent tripping hazards,” Compton says. “We want the setup to be as neat and unobtrusive as it is effective and accurate.”
Getting quality, standardized equipment is the most important aspect of installing a good courtroom presentation system, but it is not the only one. The room’s characteristics also matter.
Lighting is a big issue. Are there windows that allow in natural light that can wash out the screens? If so, blinds or curtains will need to be installed. Motorized window coverings are the easiest to use during proceedings and they add an air of professionalism to the operation.
Artificial lighting should also be checked to, again, ensure that the screens are not being washed out, and that each viewing position is getting the same viewing experience.
Noisy fans or other distractions should be dealt with, to ensure that evidence audio is both clear and intelligible. If outdoor traffic noise is an issue, some form of sound deadening material should be added to the room. Sometimes thick curtains are enough to solve the problem.
Next, the room needs to be checked to ensure that it has adequate power (AC) and computer connectivity. Paths for cable runs will also need to be chosen, with the goal being to hide as much wiring as possible. Monitor placement also needs to be worked out so that monitors provide easy viewing without creating visual obstacles. The judge, jury and both counsels need to be able to see each other at all times.
“For a courtroom presentation to be effective, the room has to be optimized for its installation,” Compton says. “It is also important to take the room’s size and layout into consideration, because it will influence the screen size of the monitors you choose. Will they be far away? Then you need large monitors. But a 42” HDTV on the judge’s bench, just a foot from his nose, is no help to him. Appropriate scale is everything.
ASK AN INTEGRATOR
A courtroom presentation system is a specialized product and not simply a larger version of a home entertainment system with a few extra monitors thrown in. That is why it makes sense to have such systems designed by professional integrators.
To find a good integrator, arrange to visit different courts, and contact the integrators who produced the most impressive systems. Companies such as FVS, or the association, the Center for Legal and Court Technology at William & Mary Law School, are also good sources of advice.
“Courtroom presentation systems have become central to American justice, and their importance is only likely to grow as technology advances,” Compton said. “This is why you need to take the planning, installation and maintenance of such systems very, very seriously. In some cases, what the judge and jury see on these screens will literally decide matters of life and death.”