Electronic evidence system on-line at U.S. District Court in Richland

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldAugust 17, 2013 

RICHLAND -- After listening to testimony for days or even weeks, jurors can be left with a stack of paperwork and photographs to pass around during deliberations.

Officials with U.S. District Court in Richland knew it was time to simplify the process and went in search of options.

Now, for citizens seated on a jury in the Federal Building, sifting through the exhibits is as easy as putting their finger on a touchscreen monitor and swiping through the scanned pages.

There's no longer a need for jurors to handle evidence unless they request a specific item, like in a recent drug trial where it was key to feel the weight of a gun's magazine and bullets.

Senior Judge Ed Shea acknowledges it is a transition for some as there's "a whole generation of judges and lawyers" and even jurors who are more comfortable to have paper in hand.

But his intent this past spring in introducing the technology, known as the Jury Evidence Recording System, was to make it efficient for everybody.

Richland's federal courthouse is the first in the Eastern District of Washington to adopt and integrate the system into its existing courtroom infrastructure. The only cost was in buying a video capture card for the courtroom and a touchscreen computer and a monitor, for about $2,600 total.

The system electronically captures evidence in real time as it is presented in court. Then those electronic files are made available in the jury room, where one person can work the computer monitor and display exhibits of interest on a large, wall-mounted screen for all to see at one time as they try to reach a verdict in the case.

People may think they need at least one tech-savvy juror to run the system, but a tutorial video is played for the panel before beginning deliberations and remains available on the screen should they need a refresher.

The system was created by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. Currently, 29 districts in 21 states, along with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, either are using this system or in the process of testing and implementing it, according to Shea's office. The federal courthouses in Spokane and Yakima will be on board eventually.

Dave Cambensy, an IT specialist with the Eastern District of Washington, credits Shea with taking "the bull by the horns" and requesting it once he knew it was available at minimal cost for his courtroom.

The first live use of the system was a seven-week trial. The agribusiness case was document-driven with 900 to 1,000 exhibits, so Shea told Cambensy and Courtroom Deputy Debbie Brasel to get the system booted up in time for trial.

The judge got the cooperation of the federal prosecutors and all of the lawyers representing eight defendants. They were instructed to have everything digitized before trial so paper exhibits weren't used in the courtroom, though the attorneys did have a multitude of 3-inch binders nearby in case the originals were needed as backup.

The judge also required all of the parties to show up the Thursday or Friday before trial with their tech people to make sure their equipment was compatible with the courtroom by connecting their iPads or laptops.

Cambensy said it's ideal for the court to get the documents beforehand so they can be imported and ready to go on the first day of trial.

However, the Spokane-based employee stayed in Richland for several nights during that first case, releasing exhibits and making sure there weren't any glitches.

"The system is really just push-button," Cambensy said.

A name is given to each exhibit which helps Brasel search for it in the system if it needs to be redacted or withdrawn during trial, and allows the jury to use an exhibit list when searching for a particular item in evidence.

If a solid object like a gun is introduced in trial, it is placed on a projector-like device called Elmo, which will display the item on small monitors in the jury box and at the judge's bench, in addition to taking a three-dimensional picture. That snapshot then is uploaded to the electronic file for the jury to review later.

Jurors still must rely on their own notes as the system will not record witness testimony.

When documents are redacted or replaced during trial, Brasel said she instructs the attorneys to email her the new version overnight. The other parties will review the changed document before she digitally adds it to the evidence.

Shea said that's why it is critical for Brasel to keep a daily log of exhibits, in addition to a second list for new exhibits needed from the lawyers. The final evidence file is approved by the judge and attorneys -- to make sure it includes only admitted items -- before Brasel makes it accessible to jurors once they start deliberations.

For now, Shea has decided not to let audio or video files go back to the jury room through the electronic system. If jurors want to re-hear the audio tape of a drug transaction or again watch footage from a helicopter following a suspect's car, they must return to the open courtroom for the playback.

Shea said if one of his colleagues is presiding over a federal trial in the Richland courthouse, he or she can opt to give that extra access to jurors.

When the jury asks to see physical evidence -- like the magazine and bullets in a recent 1 1/2-day drug trial -- instead of looking at the picture on their monitor, Brasel will take it into the jury room and watch them pass it around before leaving with the item.

The jury room computer is completely secure, said Cambensy. It doesn't have Internet capability, cannot be accessed by an outside source and won't keep track of what exhibit items jurors have looked at on the Jury Evidence Recording System, he said.

However, an added benefit is the system will store all of the exhibits for appeal purposes, so the court doesn't need to send the physical evidence.

Jurors are given an exit survey after serving in federal court, and both Brasel and Shea said they've come back favorable with people impressed by the new technology.

The new system is more efficient, said Shea, and proven to be "very well organized for the jury and attorneys."

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