In 2003, Bexar County, Texas, began its innovative and pioneering project of developing courtrooms specifically designed to meet the special needs in child abuse and neglect cases. Under the leadership of Bexar County judges, and with the support of the Commissioner’s Court and local community, a court complex was created to enable these children to attend court and testify in a non-threatening and comforting environment.
2003 statistics indicated that 2.3% (1.5 million) of children in the U.S. experienced physical abuse that year; 3 million cases of abuse and neglect were logged into the system that year; 33% of those cases were substantiated. Two thousand children were killed by parents/caretakers and 18,000 suffered permanent disabilities from abuse or neglect.
Based on these national figures, combined with local data, Bexar County leaders realized that the need for a specialized courtroom was critical. A design team was formed including architectural, electrical and mechanical engineers, a child psychologist, and CLCT’s Deputy Director, Martin Gruen. The child psychologist assisted the team in creating an environment that would help a child feel protected and safe during the court procedure.
The Center for Legal & Court Technology’s Consulting services in action–helping a large jurisdiction rebuild from a community disaster.
CLCT is proud to support the Gulfport, Mississippi, Municipal Court as an on-going pro bono public service project.
The court lost its courthouse in Hurricane Katrina forcing it to relocate first to trailers and then to a former elementary school. After the disaster, the City of Gulfport’s Administrator visited William & Mary and requested CLCT’s help.
The Gulfport Municipal Court is a court of first instance with the largest docket of any court in Mississippi. Its jurisdiction includes traffic, minor criminal offenses, domestic violence and environmental matters.
The new Robert J. Curry Public Safety Center opened in February 2011 with the Municipal Complex housing the Police Department and the Municipal Court. The facilities, although under the same roof, have separate entrances allowing for convenient proximity but a functional separation. The court’s basic technological objective was to integrate and utilize the records management system with the new audio visual equipment in the courtroom. Achieving this in the Arraignment Courtroom was complicated because it was originally designed to serve as Council Chambers and to be used by the community.
The Center for Legal & Courtroom Technology analyzed the elderly response to modern courtroom technology on September 13, 2010, in a Laboratory Trial at the William & Mary School of Law. The fictitious case In Re Leslie Lyndon decided a guardianship dispute between an elderly woman and her adult children. The lab trial featured multiple remote witnesses, including a historic testimony of a remote witness appearing via videoconference from Williamsburg Landing, a local retirement community.
This remote testimony is believed to be the first time that a witness has testified from home. The CLCT conducted the experiment for occasions when witnesses may be too ill or weak to leave their homes or a retirement community. “The one difficulty regarding the remote witnesses is that you lose some of the body language and tonality,” said volunteer Jury Foreman Art Block. “But it is absolutely better than having someone read the transcript.” Commenting on remote witness testimony from home, presiding Circuit Court Judge Charles Posten said that the step could change everything. “The technology allowed us to have her testimony, live and in her own words, when otherwise it would have been impossible,” added Erin McNeill, a William & Mary student who served as counsel for petitioners in the lab trial.
Though the test trials held in the McGlothlin Courtroom over the years have utilized technology extensively, the 2010 Lab Trial is notable for being about the use of technology itself. The mock case, United States v. Varic, focused on the difficulties in ascertaining whether the accused had actually been responsible for creating the digital evidence used against them, or whether the evidence had (in part or whole) been manufactured by a third party and then falsely attributed to the accused.
First, painstaking effort was made to actually fabricate evidence that could be used (in this case to incriminate an innocent party for participating in attempted child slavery) as evidence against a defendant. Even basing this data creation on what a fabricator with limited resources could achieve, investigators were not able to find a “smoking gun” proving that the evidence was, in fact, fabricated. In one sense, the difficulty an investigator would have proving that a piece of evidence was falsely attributed works agains the defendant, but the defense’s knowledge that such evidence is difficult to trace inherently injects doubt into the proof itself.