Courtroom 21 at the William and Mary College of Law, in Williamsburg, Va., is one of the temples of high-tech justice in the United States. Visitors from around the world come to see this lab courtroom with its sophisticated recording and evidence presentation systems.
Researchers there recently conducted experiments that test the effect of expert witnesses and counsel appearing via video-link in setting damages in a personal-injury lawsuit. The thesis was that a video presentation was likely to be less persuasive than one made in person.
But experimenting this year with eight different combinations of live or video appearance by expert witnesses and lawyers, Courtroom 21 found no differences in the way the "jurors" made their awards. "In some ways that's terribly encouraging," says Fredric Lederer, director of Courtroom 21. "The ultimate result does not seem to be affected" by the use of technology. "Jurors have said repeatedly that they like to see, and not just hear, evidence," he says.
Professor Lederer acknowledges, however, that sometimes fancy slide presentations would so overwhelm jurors that they failed to follow the counsel's argument. And he adds, "The traditional view is that the courthouse is a major component of your civic architecture - it's where people go to see justice done."
The sense of a "public trial" is of great importance. "The critical question here is, 'What is it that we are trying to do?' Saving time and money is not the only thing of value here. If you lose the heart and soul of the system, then you've made a blunder," Lederer says.