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Courtrooms of the Future : NEXT L.A.: A look at issues, people and ideas helping to shape the emerging metropolis.

Do cyber-judges and virtual reality crime re-enactments sound like science fiction? They are, but maybe not for long.

ant a divorce? Stroll to the nearest Quick Court kiosk and dissolve your marriage at the keyboard. Slapped with a speeding ticket? Dial up the courthouse computer and pay the fine through your touch-tone phone.

And what about that lawsuit you need to file in San Francisco today? Hey, no sweat. Just call your attorney--she’ll file the papers electronically.

What’s that? You want to see a real, live judge? Well sure, no problem. Step inside the Next L.A. courthouse and walk the halls of 21st-Century justice.

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Peek into that courtroom on the first floor--the jurors are staring at a three-dimensional hologram, a replica of a murder scene complete with bloody bodies. Down the hall, jurors are navigating a “virtual reality” re-enactment of a car crash, flinching as they watch a drunk driver swerve in heavy traffic.

Then there are the popcorn-munching jurors on the fifth floor. The judge recorded the entire trial on video a few weeks ago, then edited out the objections, the sidebar conferences and the high-strung legal wrangling. The result: a condensed trial that jurors can watch on a big-screen TV.

Finally, you’ve got to check out the latest judge on the bench. It’s a computer, actually, stocked with the best in artificial intelligence.

Drawing on a huge database of case histories, this computer forecasts results of upcoming lawsuits. In a personal injury case, for example, attorneys punch in the facts and the computer spits out a predicted verdict, complete with a damage award. Usually, the computer’s analysis persuades the bickering sides to settle before trial.

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So . . . how does it strike you, this new, high-tech justice? No more law books on the shelves of judges’ chambers--they all use CD-ROM reference libraries. No more musty archives, either--just tap a computer screen and call up any file you need.

Sure, the justice seems a bit more impersonal. And less dramatic. But it’s definitely more efficient.

Isn’t that what everyone wanted back in 1995?

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This mythical Next L.A. courthouse sounds like the stuff of science fiction. But it’s not all that far out.

The O.J. Simpson double-murder trial has showcased some of the most sophisticated courtroom technology in use today.

Lawyers have marked their evidence photos with bar codes, like those used in supermarkets. They swipe the bar code with a hand-held scanner and presto--the photo pops up on a courtroom screen.

The Simpson courtroom also features software that instantly converts the court reporter’s shorthand into English, and sends the transcript directly to the lawyers’ laptop computers. As the transcript scrolls by, attorneys can mark crucial passages electronically for future reference.

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But such handy technology sounds downright plodding compared to what’s in the works.

The upcoming retrial of Erik and Lyle Menendez will feature a video dramatization showing how the brothers dashed into the house to shoot their parents, ran outside, reloaded and returned to the bloodied TV room. Prosecutors hope the image will prompt jurors to view the brothers as cold-blooded killers.

Within a decade or two, lawyers may be able to recreate a crime for jurors even more dramatically, using holograms or virtual reality. Prosecutors could make the jurors feel as though they were hunched behind a shrub, watching O.J. Simpson slash his ex-wife’s neck. The defense could present an alternative scenario, taking jurors into a drug pusher’s mind as he slaughtered the two victims, or showing panelists how former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman could swipe a bloody glove and plant it on Simpson’s estate.

If that notion sounds spooky, how about this: The familiar wood-paneled courtroom, with its black-robed judge and solemn-faced bailiff, could give way to a “virtual courtroom” dominated by cold computer screens.

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With virtual courtrooms, trial participants need not gather in one room. Instead, the case would unfold in cyberspace.

Out-of-state witnesses would testify through a video conferencing system. In the most extreme application, jurors from across the United States might deliberate via computer chat lines.

Needless to say, the concept of the virtual courtroom unnerves some in the legal world.

At the annual conference of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court last month, several judges fretted aloud that the new technology will confront them with tough decisions, such as which crime scene re-creations spring from solid science and which are inflammatory, juror-swaying gambits.

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The technology raises other questions: How will judges ensure public access to cyberspace trials? Will technicians manipulate images, distorting jurors’ perceptions? What will happen to the constitutional right of defendants to confront accusers?

And what about the justice system itself? As the state Judicial Council’s technical whiz, Ron Titus, explained, “All the trappings we’ve [traditionally] surrounded the judge with communicate the authority of the state and the importance of the courtroom.” Might that authority falter in an amorphous cyberspace courtroom?

Most techies insist that such issues can be resolved. But not without serious deliberation.

“You can’t just go blindly into the future saying technology’s going to save us,” cautioned Judge Raymond Edwards Jr. of the San Diego County Superior Court. “You have to keep in mind that justice is a human experience.”

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Even apparently simple innovations like the Quick Court kiosk require careful study. Guiding a citizen through a divorce filing at a neighborhood kiosk could be perceived as advocacy, rather than impartial adjudication.

Also, if citizens are able to file suits and dissolve marriages at judicial ATMs, what’s to stop a prankster from arranging a neighbor’s divorce or a boss’s bankruptcy? To safeguard electronic documents, courts must develop software to verify “digital signatures.”

Before they get to such razzle-dazzle technology, however, some courts still have to enter the computer age.

Los Angeles Superior Courts are just now computerizing probate records so citizens will be able to call up documents on-line. Courts have yet to even connect judges with each other--let alone with lawyers and probation officers. Such a system is crucial to building the court of the future. Yet it requires both money and coordination.

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Once such prosaic details are worked out, “we’re limited only by our imaginations,” Superior Court Judge George W. Trammell said. “I find it very exciting.”

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Courtrooms of the Future

An artist’s fanciful vision of high- tech justice, circa the future, includes holograms, computerized judges and robot bailiffs.

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Lawyers could access files or evidence simple by touching their computer screens.

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Floating cameras would monitor the court session.

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Virtual- reality goggles would let jurors view re- enactments of accidents, murder scenes and other evidence.


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