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E-courtrooms designed to reduce trial time

Electronic courtrooms in use by S.C. Federal judges include monitors in the jury box, a witness-box monitor with touch-screen features and large-screen monitors for public viewing.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Every word spoken in the courtroom where Branden Basham is on trial for his life appears immediately before U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson on a computer screen.  Basham, accused in the 2002 abduction and death of Alice Donovan of Galivants Ferry, is having his case heard in one of three E-courtrooms in the new Matthew J. Perry Jr. Federal Courthouse here.

There are seven such courtrooms in South Carolina, three in Columbia and at least one each in federal courthouses in Florence, Greenville and Charleston.

Lawyers say the courtrooms help reduce trial time by making evidence display and tracking documents more efficient.

Advanced courtroom technology has been gaining acceptance with federal judges since the mid-1990s, according to a 1997 survey of judges.  The survey by the Administration Office Electronic Courtroom Project indicated 80 percent of judges then had experienced or planned to use the newest technology.

The electronic courtroom here includes monitors in the jury box, one between every two seats.  There is also a witness-box monitor with touch-screen features.  There are also large-screen monitors for public viewing.

"It made the Chadrick Fulks' case three to five days shorter," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Schools, referring to Basham's co-defendant.

Fulks pleaded guilty and has been and sentenced to death.

Lawyers estimate Basham's trial will last up to six weeks. Schools said it would be longer without the courtroom technology.

Jack Swerling, one of Basham's lawyers, has found no drawbacks with the electronic setup.

Defense lawyers, prosecutors and Anderson use the courtroom's real-time transcription feature to receive a printed version of the trial as it's being recorded by the court reporter.

"It helps us stay more on top of the case," Swerling said.  "You can get the printed version and review it at night."

The greatest timesaving feature is the evidence presentation system with the video monitors, Schools said.

Before the system was installed, lawyers had to show evidence to witnesses, then carry it over to jurors, he said.

There are more than 300 pieces of evidence in Basham's case, Schools said.  About three-fourth of the items can be shown to jurors on the video monitors, he said.

Schools said trials in E-courtrooms require extensive preparation, but it is worth the effort.