The Jury Is Still Out on ‘Cameras in the Courtroom’

Cameras record proceedings, microphones transmit motions and systems present evidence
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Cameras record proceedings, microphones transmit motions and systems present evidence

The U.S. government is nearing the end of the second year of a three-year pilot project in which cameras are recording federal court proceedings and streaming those proceedings online. The videos have attracted more than 175,000 views, with some law firms using the broadcasts to train lawyers.

On Sept. 14, 2010, the Department of Justice’s Judicial Conference approved the “Cameras in the Courtroom” pilot project “to evaluate the effect of cameras in federal district courtrooms and the public release of digital video recordings of some civil proceedings.” The program began on July 18, 2011 with 14 U.S. district courts participating.

The courts involved with the program are the Middle District of Alabama, the Northern District of California, the Southern District of Florida, the District of Guam, the Northern District of Illinois, the Southern District of Iowa, the District of Kansas, the District of Massachusetts, the Eastern District of Missouri, the District of Nebraska, the Northern District of Ohio, the Southern District of Ohio, the Western District of Tennessee and the Western District of Washington.

The pilot program is restricted to civil proceedings in which the parties involved have consented to the recording. Participating districts must comply with a set of guidelines issued by the DoJ’s Committee on Court Administration and Case Management, said Abel Mattos, chief of the committee.

“There have been over 175,000 viewings of court cases, so it seems to be people are using it,” Mattos said. Not surprisingly, among the viewers are law firms, which are starting to use the videos as training aids because they are “great learning tools,” he said quoting a lawyer.

However, despite the growing popularity of the project, the participating courts are facing tight budgets resulting in the reduction of court staffers who can operate the cameras, Mattos said. “In those cases, the court staff overseeing this are IT people, but not necessarily television-production people,” he said. That has led to some courts positioning the cameras in places where they can capture as much of the courtrooms as possible, which has resulted in a few problems. Those problems include some courts not getting the audio at times, or not having the camera properly positioned to record the action, he said.

Part of the problems has been when cameras are fixed and not under control of an operator. The lawyers arguing a case have to stand in a designated position and speak into the microphone placed at that position. Lawyers who have stepped away from the microphone were no longer recorded requiring judges to direct the lawyers to return to the spots. The committee is working on a training video for the courts that contains basic instruction on how to record the proceedings to help deal with this situation.

While a training video would likely help, technology is available that would eliminate this problem, including the use of a portable microphone system, such as that offered by Revolabs.


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Revolabs’ Executive HD SystemRevolabs’ Executive HD system provides support for up to eight wireless microphones. Multiple units can be linked together to support 32 microphones in an area when used in the Americas; 40 microphones when used internationally, without interference. The system’s wireless design not only provides users with the freedom of natural movement, but eliminates the clutter of cables for a clean look without having to drill into expensive furniture in courtrooms. The Executive HD is encrypted to ensure that court proceedings remain private, the company says.

The Executive HD can be integrated with all control systems via RS-232 or Ethernet, and an intuitive front-panel LCD display provides simple control and configuration.

The Executive HD is also being tested by a second project: the Center for Legal and Court Technology, also known as the Courtroom 21 project, at the College of William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va.

The CLCT hopes to improve the world’s legal systems through the use of technology in the courtroom. It tests such technology in the McGlothlin Courtroom, the world’s most technologically advanced trial and appellate courtroom and classroom, according to the center. From the latest hardware to cutting-edge software, the McGlothlin Courtroom serves as a training ground for recent advancements in courtroom and legal technology, including wireless microphone systems.

The CLCT chose the Executive HD because of its advanced security features, which are vital in a courtroom setting, as well as for its audio quality, ease of use and compact size, said Martin Gruen, the CLCT’s deputy director for technology.

“By eliminating the need to wear a bulky transmitter, the HD wearable microphones provide complete freedom of movement for users,” he said. “In addition, the ability to connect the microphones to a headset makes them ideal for remote foreign language interpretation where the user needs to be able to speak to and hear from an interpreter in another location.”


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Christopher Thomas, a contractor for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, tries out a Mobile Studios Inc. PortaCast50 that was delivered to the U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois.While the CLCT assesses technology before it is deployed in the courts, Mobile Studios Inc.’s PortaCast Mini-Flypacks have been part of the Cameras in the Courtroom project since the beginning. Deployed at federal courtrooms in Seattle, Boston, Montgomery, Ala., Washington and Chicago, the PortaCast Mini-Flypacks were selected to participate because of the unit’s simplicity and compactness, said Mobile Studios President Richard Rubin.

The Mini-Flypacks’ VGA to HD-SDI conversion and that the fact that the unit uses a single cable to handle video/power/camera control making for easy deployment were also factors in it being selected for the project. To facilitate those abilities, the Mini-Flypacks are equipped with a Panasonic AW-HS50 Switcher, a Panasonic AW-RP50 Robotic Controller installed in a Pelican-style case with builtin Multiview 22-inch LED Monitor and patch panel, Rubin said. The suitcase on wheels is completely waterproof and extremely durable.

“As it is right now, the courts are very happy, and the Mini-Flypacks are producing excellent results,” he said.

Of course there are other products that courts might consider deploying to provide video. Some of those products are:


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Creston’s DigitalMedia-300-CCreston offers its DigitalMedia-300-C, which can integrate and distribute content—including audio and video, email, computer searches, smart phones and voice mails—into a courtroom’s existing network, according to Michael DiBella, marketing solutions manager for Creston.

The DMPS-300-C is a high-definition presentation control and signal routing solution for boardrooms, lecture halls, videoconference rooms and the courts. By integrating the control system, multimedia matrix switcher, microphone mixer, audio DSP and amplifier all into a single three-space rackmount package, the DMPS-300-C affords extensive signal routing flexibility and high-performance signal processing without the need for separate components. Auto-configuring inputs enable plug-and-play compatibility with a wide range of digital and analog sources, and built-in DigitalMedia and HDBaseT connectivity affords a streamlined wiring solution for interfacing with remote AV sources, computers and display devices.

Court officials are looking for easier ways to show all the different exhibits, DiBella said “Where there once were hard copies of documents, now you can put it up on PowerPoint and the DigitalMedia-300 allows for the distribution of content, like charts and X-rays,” he said.


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Evertz’s EQ-X, which is part of the VIP-X system.
The Evertz VIP-X system, which includes the EQ-X, combines a control room routing platform with a modular multi-image display system to create a content distribution solution in a single package, according to Matt Krstulja, Evertz’s AV sales director. The Fairfax County Judicial Center in Fairfax, Va., uses the VIP-X to distribute evidence, which can be from a computer or a hardcopy acquired using a document camera.

In addition, the VIP-X is scalable, so evidence or information does not have to be confined to a single courtroom, but can be sent through the entire courthouse, Krstulja said. In Fairfax County, the judges have displays, monitors and control systems that enable them to control the flow of evidence, including distributing it to a jury.

Fairfax County is also using the VIP-X as a temporary video- teleconferencing system to conduct arraignments, Krstulja said. Rather than purchase an entire videoconferencing system, Fairfax officials have acquired a smaller subset of a system that was put into the VIP-X system, he said. They now use it to conduct videoconferencing in the courtrooms on an as-needed basis.

“If there’s an arraignment in ‘courtroom one’ today, once the arraignment is complete the system is returned to the VIP-X system where it can be routed to another courtroom that needs a videoconferencing system,” he said. That is one way the VIP-X helps the Fairfax Judicial Center “share resources without having to replicate the resources,” he said.


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Rushworks’ VDESKBecause an increasing number of courtrooms are welcoming the presence of video cameras as part of an effort to enhance awareness and public safety in their communities, Rushworks is offering the VDESK, which is a touch screen-based multicamera video production system developed specifically for use by a single operator.

With the VDESK, production is conducted by a single operator using a touch screen that displays a 3D grayscale rendering of the courtroom, with picture icons representing the locations of the judge, lawyers, plaintiffs, defendants, the witness stand and jury box, according to Rush Beesley, president of Rushworks. In addition, Rushworks has developed a small pan-and-tilt head called a PT-MINI. An HD video camera can be placed on it that supports an unlimited number of presets, he said. Two or three of those integrated camera units can provide comprehensive coverage of the courtroom from every angle, and for virtually every seat.

The operator just touches the person or area of interest, and the shot goes immediately to the program output, Beesley said. The operator can automatically superimpose the name of the person on screen when the preset is touched, or control the overlay manually. Any information imported from the case docket can also be displayed as an overlay with a single screen touch. The court has the option to record all the individual camera outputs to unique files for the purpose of post-trial review. The resulting video files can be indexed and uploaded to a cloud system for storage where the files can be searched or retrieved for video-ondemand display.


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Vaddio’s Quick-Connect Camera Control Unit under the WallVIEW CCU HD-19 camera.Because many courtrooms are located in historic buildings, Vaddio recommends its Quick-Connect Camera Control Unit be deployed in older facilities, said Tom Mingo, Vaddio’s vice president of sales. The CCUs were designed for the control of robotic cameras in any scenario. The unit’s cabling system allows the use of standard CAT-5 cabling to run both HD and SD video, camera power, black burst sync and camera control up to 500 feet.

To simplify installation, Vaddio’s CCU packages are standardized for use with any of its pan-tilt-zoom cameras. When dealing with a court situation, what has to be taken into consideration is that the operator might not be a professional cameraperson or a court clerk might not be available to run the video system, he said. If no clerk is present, the system needs to operate in an automated way. “We have answers for both paths.”

The CCU’s automated feature will use a court’s microphone system as the “triggering point” to direct the switcher to activate the appropriate camera when a specific microphone is being used, Mingo said. For example, when a judge is speaking to the court, a preset automatically directs the appropriate camera to record a head-and-shoulders shot of the judge so long as the jurist is speaking.


The question of whether the Cameras in the Courtroom project will expand or be cut will not be answered until the fall of 2014, according to Mattos. “The verdict is still out on that because we’re still collecting and assimilating data,” he said. “The committee I work for will make a recommendation to the conference one way or the other, and the conference will probably decide by the fall of 2014 whether to expand the program or not.”

What is clear is that the systems available to the judiciary can put the courts on the cutting edge of technology. Next case.




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