Recently, I took part in a very serious criminal hearing in a local county. The hearing was somewhat routine in the area of criminal procedure except for one thing. The material witness in the case was not in Georgia.
The witness was hundreds of miles away in another state and could not be brought back to Georgia under any circumstances. What did we do? We performed a videoconference hearing.
Some of you may have heard of Skype or Microsoft Link to perform such tasks. We used the latter and actually had the witness “present” in the courtroom. The person was live on the screen in the courtroom, was able to testify, confer with me, and able to see other witnesses testify from his location in another state. Wow. I was very impressed with how smooth the hearing went.
This videoconference saved this county thousands of dollars because the witness did not have to be transported to Georgia.
Videoconferencing is also used at some county jails in Georgia. Douglas County’s new jail has a system set up where I can visit with my clients at the jail via teleconference. For now, I still have to actually go to the jail. But, my office is setting up a two way system where I can call the Douglas Co. jail and speak to my client while looking at him or her in the eye on my computer screen. It’s like having my client right there in my office.
This has and will save precious time and dollars as well. All of this courtroom technology, which I admittedly used to be afraid of, is exciting. While there are some Constitutional limits on what can be done, there are still more procedures that can be adopted that will save money for the state of Georgia.
One idea is to allow some crime lab witnesses to testify via teleconference. Oftentimes, a crime lab witness just has to answer a couple of important questions. “Did you test this substance?’, “What did you find it to be?”
Currently, the crime lab witness must be subpoenaed for court, drive to the county where the trial is taking place, and wait to be called to testify. This is a waste of time for the state employee and a waste of money for the Georgia taxpayer. It also causes a backup of cases at the crime lab.
Instead, a law could be passed that would allow a crime lab witness to testify from their office in Atlanta. After a few moments of testimony, the employee could then immediately get back to work on other cases coming up for trial. Some folks will have a problem with this. The primary concern would be the defendant’s right to confront the witnesses who testify against him. I understand this concern in cases where there is an issue of how an illegal substance got to and from the crime lab. This is called the chain of custody. However, provisions can be made by legislators to alleviate the concerns of people who would be worried about witness confrontation issues.
Other examples of money saving technological advances would be witness teleconferencing at habeas corpus hearings (the Attorney General’s Office currently must pay lawyers who are subpoenaed to these hearings), remote announcements at calendar calls, and pretrial conferencing when busy lawyers are trying to settle a case.
It has been many years since Judge Emerson motioned for me to come to the bench and offer a piece of advice. “Jason, you need to bring your laptop to trial. We are constantly researching here in court and you are at a disadvantage without a legal research tool like Westlaw while in trial.”
At the time, I was afraid of courtroom technology because I did not know how to use it. However, I heeded that piece of guidance and it has served me very well.
The implementation of more court related technology will also serve the state of Georgia well.