WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) – A recent demonstration at the William & Mary Law School shows how technology can transform the judicial system.
WAVY-TV watched two breakthrough technologies – one that’s already in place, another that will need to clear a constitutional hurdle.
Remote appearances in courtrooms have been going on for years, and usually it’s a defendant appearing by video from a nearby jail for an early-stage hearing. But new hologram technology from Los Angeles-based Proto takes it several steps further.
You might have seen it on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, or at a Brooklyn Nets or Dallas Cowboys game. In a courtroom context, it would enable a prosecution witness to testify from across the country or the other side of the world.
But enshrined in the Sixth Amendment is the confrontation clause, the notion that you get to confront your accuser – so is this encounter the same as face-to-face?
William & Mary has long been a showcase for courtroom technology, and has shown the system to federal and military judges.
“It’s extraordinary. Many of us feel that is functionally the equivalent of having the witness physically in the courtroom,” said Frederic Lederer, Chancellor Professor of Law.
The demonstration involved staff from the law school, and the scenario was a mock case where a woman whose husband died from tainted medicine was suing the pharmacist. When she discovered her husband’s case of death, she hurled a brick through the pharmacist’s window.
The defendant pharmacist testified by hologram, and had the brick with him. He was sitting upstairs in an office facing a camera, but “appeared” in a booth placed next to the judge’s bench. The image had more realism and depth than say a Zoom, WebEx or typical video image, and that was most apparent when the pharmacist displayed the brick, rotating it for the hologram.
“Is this, constitutionally, the same as being there?” Lederer ponders. “And if it is, then this is going to change prosecutions throughout the United States, because we can then have remote prosecution witnesses.”
Lederer has done controlled experiments on how jurors judge the credibility of witnesses, whether remote in front of a camera, versus present right in the courtroom.
“You had the same jury result using remote witnesses than you did having physically present witnesses,” he said.
While the verdict is still out on whether holographic testimony will clear the constitutional bar for courtrooms, Proto says it’s already in use “by Fortune 500 companies such as PriceWaterhouseCooper, Siemens and Walmart; major universities including med schools; and in sports arenas, museums, stores and more in industry, universities and public venues”.
Another state of the art technology for courtrooms displayed at William & Mary is called FTR RealTime, the company’s latest iteration of voice-to-text recording of court proceedings that would eliminate or at least greatly reduce the need for human court reporters to document court proceedings.
The company used to have a traditional court-reporting business in Australia.
“The one thing that (human court reporters) could never do was produce repeatable, reliable same-day delivery of transcripts for a lot of courts at a low cost,” said CEO Tony Douglass.
FTR RealTime is already is use in about a dozen U.S. courts, including Orlando, Fla.
“It’s transformational. It’s gonna change the industry,” said Trial Court Administrator Matt Benefiel. “The quality of the speech-to-text has improved so much over the last five years that when you get 92-95% correct, that’s better than what we can do with a human being.”
It’s keyed to the individual microphones on the system, so it can even capture and sort simultaneous talking.
“That’s a really important part – knowing who’s talking when in the courtroom and dealing with over talk has been one of the foundational pieces that makes this technology very useful today,” Douglass said.
If RealTime would gain wide acceptance – what would happen to people like Dana Pon? She’s been court reporting for more than 20 years and owns Fiduciary Reporting in Virginia Beach.
“We are the guardians of the record for a reason,” Pon said.
For a long time, she said rumors of her profession’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“I think it’s something that’s been told to court reporters for years, that our jobs are gonna be taken over by AI. Every time they think they have this great new technology, something malfunctions, and they go back to court reporters.”
Pon says humans can capture more nuance in a courtroom setting.
“If someone shakes their head or nods it, I can say they’ve nodded their head affirmatively, or shook their head negatively. I’ve got the ability to have people repeat themselves when someone sneezes or someone coughs. I’m constantly interrupting.”
Pon says she can also record what’s said from the gallery, away from a microphone.
“It happens a lot. You have family members that are really upset, really emotional during jury trials, and emotional (preliminary hearings).”
But even Pon agrees there aren’t enough human court reporters to go around. Frederic Lederer, Chancellor Professor of Law and in charge of new technology at William & Mary Law says FTR RealTime could close that gap.
“We’ll be able to have a court record without having to rely on a human being and we’re not having enough court reporters at present.”