COLUMN ONE : Jury Out on High-Tech Courtroom : Computer animation, televised testimony and other innovations could streamline the justice system. But they also raise fairness questions and worries about abuse.


As the simple cartoon begins, a sleeping figure resembling a crash dummy is seen from above, lying in bed. The man suddenly awakens as the first of eight gunshots is fired in his direction. Walking down a corridor, the gray figure is hit by shots in the arm, the chest and finally the head. He crumples and falls to the floor.

The three-minute color segment may not win any awards as entertainment. But this computer-generated animation was enough to help convict Bay Area adult theater operator Jim Mitchell of killing his brother and partner, Artie, in 1992--the first time in California that such technology was admitted as evidence in a criminal case.

Such computer-generated animation is the leading edge of technology that may transform the nation's court system. Some say it promises to improve the quality of justice by allowing attorneys to more clearly make their arguments to jurors who are frequently confused by conflicting eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence.

At the same time, other high-tech innovations hold out the prospect of clearing the clogged arteries of the court system, reducing delays and paying for themselves in efficiencies along the way.

Among these advances are televised witness testimony that can span oceans; televised court appearances from jail studios, and electronic filing and retrieval of court documents.

Some judges believe that if all the existing technologies were used in one courtroom, they could cut the time of a trial in half.

But with this promise comes peril, critics say. Jurists and law professors point out these costly technologies bring profound practical and philosophical questions about fairness, the role of the jury and the sanctity of constitutional guarantees.

Not to mention the danger of technological manipulation. Alexander Jason, the Marin County ballistics expert who produced the Mitchell animation for the prosecution, admits the producer's power verges on omnipotence.

"I'm God in this situation," he said.

Not exactly. Judges have ruled that the animations may be admitted into evidence only when they are created to illustrate eyewitness testimony or the testimony of forensic experts attempting to recreate a murder scene.

Judges in murder cases in California, New Jersey and New York have allowed use of animations, but only after court-ordered modifications--in effect editing of the tapes before jurors saw them.

The high cost of producing the animations--which start at $10,000--is particularly vexing to some judges and lawyers reluctant to use them.

It is not uncommon in civil cases--where less sophisticated computer-generated animations have been used in Detroit, Chicago, Dallas and other cities over the past decade--to see a great disparity in resources between opposing sides, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow. But the latest advances in technology may give the side with the most money a decisive--and thus unfair--advantage with juries, he said.

"I have a personal fear that we may get to the point that everyone must walk in with their own (computer-generated) videotape," said Chernow, who presides over family and civil cases. "I worry about whether. . . we're pricing people out of the system."

Using the animations in criminal trials, where defendants' freedom and sometimes lives are on the line, only raises the stakes.

After Mitchell was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, his attorneys appealed the verdict, asking California's 1st District Court of Appeal to decide whether Marin County prosecutors used the animation fairly.

Mitchell, 49, was accused of first-degree murder in the shooting of his younger brother in Artie Mitchell's home. The sound of some of the gunshots was captured on a 911 tape made while Artie Mitchell's girlfriend huddled in a closet, talking by telephone to a police dispatcher.

The prosecution's animation was based on the 911 tape, the opinions of acoustics and ballistics experts, the position of Artie Mitchell's body, and bloodstains.

But the initial videotape also incorporated critical information for which there was neither eyewitness testimony nor forensic evidence: Whether a beer bottle Artie Mitchell carried as he walked down a darkened hallway was pointed like a pistol, and whether he assumed a shooting position with the bottle just before his brother fired at him. At the request of the defense, the bottle was edited out.

"I think we're going to see more and more use of manipulation," said Mary Dodge, a graduate student at UC Irvine who is researching the impact of computer animation on jurors. "I see animators trying to introduce more than just straight facts."

Mitchell's attorneys are challenging his conviction in a closely watched appeal. They claim in part that the simulation should not have been admitted as evidence because the computer re-creation was based on inaccurate and misleading information from the 911 tape, ballistics and forensic evidence.

A "large number of shot sequences other than the one testified to, and illustrated in the video, were possible. . . . The reconstruction and animation could have been erroneous," Dennis O. Riordan, Jim Mitchell's appellate attorney, wrote in his brief.

The animation should not have been admitted because it is "speculative" and "prejudicial," and because "the very word 'computer' carries a public image of infinitesimal precision," he wrote.

The animation also "took from the jury its critical fact-finding and inference-drawing role," Riordan wrote in his 100-page brief, arguing for the exclusion of all such re-creations. Most critically, he said, the animation was not subject to cross-examination.

Marin County Deputy Dist. Atty. John D. Posey, who prosecuted the Mitchell case, rejects these arguments. Computer-generated animation, he said, is "nothing more than a moving diagram. . . . This is the best illustration I've ever seen to aid expert testimony."

Regardless of the appeals court's decision in the Mitchell case, the future implications of computer animation in criminal trials could be seen in the 1992 murder trial of Orange County developer James Hood. For the first time in California, both sides had the benefit of computer animated re-creations.

Hood was accused of shooting a former employee who had been acquitted of killing Hood's wife a year before. Hood's attorneys claimed he fired in self-defense.

Each side produced an animated version of the shooting, although defense attorneys did so reluctantly, after San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Don A. Turner indicated he would allow use of the version produced by the prosecution.

"I had to do it once the judge indicated he was going to let them use it," said defense attorney Philip Bourdette.

"The problem with these things is that the jury subconsciously takes these tapes and transposes them into what the facts may be," Bourdette said. "Unless the defense has their own videotape, based on their versions of what happened, the trial is going to be totally unfair."

But before admitting the tapes, Turner held a hearing at which each side criticized elements of the other's animation. The judge then ordered both sides to make changes before showing them in court.

Both Bourdette and the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Whitney, agreed this was the fastest and fairest way to edit the animations.

A jury deadlocked 10 to 2 for conviction earlier this year. Jurors told lawyers for both sides that they thought the animations were helpful, but that they were played too many times.

Hood was retried, and on Dec. 9 was convicted of first-degree murder, a result Whitney credited in large measure to the prosecution's animation. "It was tremendously helpful in summarizing for the jury the highly technical scientific evidence," he said.

While jurists debate the ethical questions raised by computer animation, other time- and money-saving innovations continue their march into the courtroom. They include Realtime, a computer program in which a court reporter's keystrokes are instantly converted to complete sentences on tabletop monitors around the room.

The court reporting system also enables lawyers and judges to enter private notes and reminders on their screens, and--using names and keywords--to search previous testimony for inconsistencies.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Trammell III, who travels the state in support of an idea he calls the "computer integrated courtroom," estimates that Realtime, used in conjunction with a videotaping system, can save $137,625 per courtroom per year. This virtually eliminates the need for court reporters to type out their notes or to read back testimony to deliberating jurors.

But in Orange County, court reporters have been slow to accept Realtime because--unlike in Judge Trammel's courtroom in Los Angeles--they are required to pay the estimated $40,000 cost of the system's software and hardware.

The National Court Reporters Assn. is even less enthusiastic about other reporting developments--audio and video transcripts--in use around the country. The five-camera, voice-activated system used in Orange County automatically records words and images as judges, attorneys and witnesses speak.

Alan Slater, Orange County courts administrator, said the system is designed to eliminate the need for live reporters in the courtroom, some of whose pay can average $60,000 a year, including extra work they do for lawyers.

Other new technologies are not confined to the courtroom. Orange County has begun video arraignments broadcast from jail studios, eliminating the costly and time-consuming need to transport inmates for what is usually a routine proceeding.

Ultimately, county officials hope the video system will save a portion of the estimated $8 million the Sheriff's Department spends annually to shuttle prisoners from jails to courts, while simultaneously increasing security and speeding the release of defendants freed by judges.

Outside the Long Beach Courthouse is a bulletproof kiosk--a computerized facility operating 24 hours a day--that allows people to pay traffic tickets, schedule court appearances or go to traffic school in English and Spanish.

This week, Orange County voted to spend nearly $2 million to establish a computerized system that will one day enable attorneys to file legal documents electronically and allow citizens to inspect legal records at their local libraries.

Some experts believe that a "courtroom without walls" could be in use in less than 30 years, allowing litigants, witnesses and even defendants to participate in trials without appearing in the same place.

In a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit in Milwaukee in 1989, two witnesses went to a London hotel room that was converted to a makeshift studio. There, they were sworn by a British barrister before testifying on a video screen in the Wisconsin courtroom. Since then, courts in Florida and New York have used televised testimony in civil cases when both sides have agreed to it.

But what of the 4th Amendment, which gives defendants the right to confront their accusers as a part of receiving a fair trial? Does questioning a witness on a television screen afford a cross-examining attorney the same opportunities to raise the key element of reasonable doubt?

"It does dilute the ability to confront and cross-examine the accusers," said Milton Grimes, a top Orange County criminal lawyer who is representing Rodney G. King in his civil lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles.

"Any time you don't have a live person there to examine, it's going to have a negative effect, because the jury can't really observe their demeanor, their behavior, their reaction," he said.

There is a huge amount of money to be made, as well as to be saved, in developing new courtroom technologies. Dozens of small start-up companies across the nation recognize the lucrative market represented by the vast and often antiquated judicial system.

Although some of the time-saving technologies should have no effect on a trial's outcome, others could. Some, at the very frontier of technology, are calculated to advance the interests of civil litigants and are aimed at the well-heeled market of trial lawyers.

Complex, multimillion-dollar civil suits involving patents, product liability and construction defect cases--which pose concepts difficult for the average juror to grasp or follow--beg for technologies that can simplify and illustrate.

One response has been the laser disc retrieval system, versions of which have been developed by companies in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. One such system was used in the federal trial of police officers charged with violating King's civil rights.

Combining compact disc and supermarket bar code technologies, the system enables attorneys to transfer thousands of exhibits--posters, charts, photographs, documents and videotaped transcripts--onto laser discs. At the touch of a bar code wand, these can be called up on 60-inch television screens in the courtroom.

Under cross-examination, witnesses can be confronted by images of themselves in earlier, videotaped depositions, giving contradictory answers. Instead of being handed from juror to juror, photographs, documents and charts appear instantly on screen for examination.

Plaintiffs using the system won a $6.75-million settlement in a 1991 San Diego suit, and attorneys for both sides credited its use for the size of the award.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Kevin W. Midlam, who presided over the case, credited the system with saving seven trial days and predicted that much more time could be saved if both sides used it. He has touted the new system at legal technology seminars around the state.

But Midlam was concerned enough about the fairness issue to order the plaintiff, who had the system, to show the defendant how to call up images on the screen to support his case. Experts agree that the technology that lies just beyond computer-generated animation is "virtual reality": The sensory experience that can take viewers inside a computer-generated environment, thanks to a helmet or wraparound goggles.

Are we looking at a future that includes lawyers, wearing virtual reality's control "glove," guiding judge and jurors through a multidimensional re-enactment--called "cyberspace"? At current prices, such a trip would cost up to $100,000 a minute to create and display.

Some experts predict that jurisprudence could even be on its way to a "virtual courthouse," a structure defined by concept rather than by concrete, an idea rather than a place. But others say that concept may be limited by imagination, not technology.

"We are a long, long way from people being willing to accept that," USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said. "The idea of eliminating the trial as a place is such a radical change as to be a long way off. It may be possible now, but I think it will be a long time before people will be willing to accept it."

Times librarian Sheila Kern contributed to the research for this story.

The 21st Century Courtroom

Installing video cameras, laser discs and computer systems in the nation's courtrooms will trim the amount of time and money required to dispense justice.


Allow Judges to review case law or make bail decisions based on court records, DMV data or outstanding warrants

Immediately display witness testimony and courtroom proceedings transcribed by court reporter

Give attorneys access to depositions, previous testimony, court records, case law

Video screens

Display re-creations of crime scenes for entire courtroom, or testimony of witnesses outside the courtroom; designed for videotape and computer-generated animation.

Video cameras

Records testimony; judge's rulings, attorneys' remarks for playback

Laser disc retrieval system

Stores depositions, documents and evidence for display during trial

Sources: Orange County Alternatives to Incarceration Task Force, Superior Court of Los Angeles County; Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times

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