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Legal Brief

  • Lyndon, KS--It feels good to say you've just designed and installed two of America's first all-digital courtrooms. Certainly, these laurels smell all the sweeter after dealing with some unusual challenges along the way. Imagine bringing an early-1900s courthouse up to date with the latest audio and video technology that's needed to streamline today's costly trials. Add to that the challenge of making a complex installation fully digital during a time when no single digital format is guaranteed to be compatible with another.
  • And finally, imagine receiving a requirement that the judge, witnesses, and attorneys all need to annotate a variety of digital images in order to clearly explain each exhibit in the trial, whether sourced from a laptop, document camera, or Blu-ray player, making computer-based annotation software solutions practically unusable.
  • These are all challenges that didn't deter Larry Heilman, president and key designer of Smith Audio Visual. In late June 2011, he and his tech-based team completed the all-digital courtroom installations for the Osage and Wyandotte county courthouses in Kansas, west of Kansas City. And he lived to tell the tale.
  • Old Courthouse, New Needs
  • "When older courtrooms such as this one [Osage] were built, not much attention was given to proper acoustics or sound systems to insure citizens were able to hear court proceedings," said John K. Steelman, district court administrator for the Fourth Judicial District of Kansas. "Courtrooms were not designed to handle the technological and video needs of today's court hearings or the media requirements of a high profile court case."
  • Larry Heilman of Smith Audio Visual agreed. "Like many courthouses across the country, they were never designed for audio reinforcement, let alone widescreen displays, so they can be very difficult for the systems integrator." The lack of cable paths, electrical and structure plans-even the lack of a circuit breaker at one point that required the electrician to work "hot"-took the installation over the top as far as planning went. "It wasn't your everyday installation for a meeting, boardroom, or classroom project, but that made it exciting for us," Heilman said.
  • The first installation was for the Osage County Courthouse, which took Heilman's team three weeks to complete from planning to final install, including the development of four designs along the way. It took less time to plan and install the courthouse in Wyandotte, since many of the system requirements were the same.
  • "Our main goal was to increase the ease of use of the equipment," he said, "which is one of the reasons we went completely with digital and high-definition equipment. It may be messy to install right now, but it's easy for the user to operate." He said that within the legal profession, there's a wide range of experience and capability with AV equipment, so ease-of-use was a priority. Going all-digital was also important to invest in future connectivity.
  • VIDEO SETUP
  • Subtly visible in the courtroom are four 22-inch Elo Graphic touchscreens for use by the two opposing attorneys, the witness, and the judge, with a widescreen projection system for jury and courtroom viewing. As it turned out, Heilman said that training the attorneys, judge, and witnesses to use the equipment only took an hour in the first courtroom, and a little more in the second, mostly because there was a last-minute switch in judges.
  • His team also integrated a remote witness room to be used by special witnesses, such as children or victims of violence, who might be intimidated by talking in a public courtroom or in being face-to-face with the perpetrator. This room includes a video camera, a 32-inch LG LCD flat panel display, and Shure microphones and audio mixer.
  • Another requirement was that the judge needed to control which audio and video evidence would be shown on the fly, at which point the evidence is formally admitted to court. This solution was provided by Smith Audio Visual's 1Touch Digital control and audio system. The system offers a proprietary sidebar function that the judge can easily select, which has the effect of setting up a private bench conference between himself, the two attorneys, and the witness. When the conference is over, the judge turns the sidebar function off, allowing all video and audio to pass through to the jury and courtroom.
  • ANNOTATION ACROSS THE COURT
  • With the wide variety of visual evidence being presented these days in court via digital media, Heilman said the heart of the digital courtroom system is the Pointmaker CPN-5000 annotation system by Boeckeler Instruments. The new CPN-5000 model is the first HDCP-compliant Pointmaker video marker with an integrated capture, print and TCP/IP networking feature. It's also a highly flexible scaler, capable of receiving video input in composite, Y/C, VGA, DVI-I, and HDMI formats, while scaling the output in high-resolution formats up to 1280 x 1024, 1440 x 900 and 1080p.
  • "That's why we got the Pointmaker," Heilman said. "It allows us to annotate from all four of the 22-inch touchscreens. This is something that no other annotation unit will allow. The outputs and control from the CPN-5000 make distribution simple."
  • With the Pointmaker, each user can be assigned a unique color for easy future identification as evidence is presented. The judge can mark any of the images as evidence, then capture them for future playback. Each captured image is automatically stored with an ID number, and can be printed or stored to USB memory drives or a computer. The output from the CPN-5000 is separated into two channels: a program output for all to view, and a preview output that only the judge, witness, and attorneys can view. "The unit is a tremendous time saver for both courthouses," Heilman said.
  • And of course, important parts of a full annotation system are the separately purchased Elo Graphic touchscreens. "They make the use of the Pointmaker extremely easy even for a first-time user," Heilman stated.
  • "It just took a few minutes to figure out how to use Pointmaker," said Osage County attorney Brandon L. Jones. "It was extremely easy. I just used my finger on the screen. It really helped witnesses be able to draw the jury's attention to specific areas of the exhibits in my recent capital murder case."
  • DIGITAL AUDIO
  • Heilman will tell you that your courtroom isn't all digital until the audio is also digitized, which is where he sets his team apart. "There's a need to hear and record every voice in the judicial process, so that everyone, from the court reporter to the jury to the hearing impaired can understand what's going on. You get this by properly mixing and powering your audio, and digital is the way to fine-tune this."
  • In addition to providing the sidebar function mentioned above via its video distribution features, Smith Audio Visual's 1Touch Digital systems include full digital audio processing with complete control from a seven-inch touch screen controller. The audio for each microphone is separately processed and properly distributed to the sound system, with full feedback control and individual audio control. The distribution system also digitally provides balanced signals to the digital audio recorder, sound reinforcement, jury audio, hearing impaired features, and more. "This is a huge improvement over existing audio systems," Heilman said.
  • Custom wood veneer cabinets for both the audio and video 1Touch Digital systems are provided to match the interior of the courtrooms.
  • DIGITAL, DIGITAL EVERYWHERE
  • Smith Audio Visual digitized everything in the two courtroom systems, as well as provided every piece of equipment except the PC. Yet Heilman laments what many systems integrators have experienced in recent days: "It used to be that analog AV just hooked up and worked, even though the picture quality wasn't the best. Now, with digital, we have great picture quality, but when you hook it up, it either works or it doesn't with the rest of the system," he said. "There's no true compatibility with digital right now. The standards are not consistent." For example, he says there are nine different formats of DVI and HDMI that require multiple handshakes.
  • Also, cable length is critical with digital, and digital extenders are not all compatible. "USB extenders-some work and some don't. It's worth the extra $10 to get the Pointmaker extenders because we used them in other installations and we already know they work. As we all know, there is no standard input/output for the cables. DVI does not include audio, HDMI has the audio and both have serious length restrictions."
  • In the end, Smith Audio Visual selected HDMI with additional analog audio-follow for these installations, because DVI does not include audio. In testing different HDMI extenders, Heilman found Hall Research seemed to have the best signal quality with longest cable length. Plus the UH-2C-3S compact distribution hub saved a lot of precious cabinet space. The Hall Research SC-VHD-HDMI sender also scaled VGA and 3:4 Video to HDMI; the unit will be removed in the future when not required, thus saving the client from having to rewire in the foreseeable future.
  • MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
  • The extra time that Smith Audio Visual spent in planning and testing different digital cables and equipment paid off. Not only did Heilman and his team receive praise from users in both courtrooms, but he also finished in time to help process an important murder trial without a glitch.
  • "The system installed in Osage County District Court will greatly improve the administration of justice in Osage County for years to come," raved district court administrator John K. Steelman. "It will drastically improve the efficiency of evidence presentation during trials. The digital exhibit and video capabilities will speed up hearings and allow cases to run much more smoothly without disruptions and recesses. And the new presentation equipment and sound system will be a major benefit to jurors and the court, improving their ability to view pieces of evidence with more ease and detail.
  • And after the trial, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) used the courtroom to hold a training session. "We held training to learn how to enter marriage records on KDHE's website using our new equipment, said district court clerk Charna Williams. "It was great. All four counties sent clerks, and the KDHE trainer was able to connect his laptop, log onto the internet, and into the KDHE website, and everything appeared on our new screen. It was seamless, easy for everyone to see, and best of all, so easy to use that I was the one that set everything up. This is the way to go."
  • THE FUTURE
  • According to Larry Heilman, the immediate future is both tentative and exciting. "The economy has to come back to life," he said, "and the AV business has to work out the kinks in digital formatting."
  • However, despite the economy, 2012 is a good year to re-energize national distribution of Smith Audio Visual's 1Touch system with upgraded features. "Now, the courtroom budgets are starting to come back," he explained. "Two years ago, the courts across the country that I serve laid off about 15-20 percent of their people, but our technology kept them from having to lay off more since then, because what we did saved them money through streamlining their court process." For example, he said, by allowing teleconferenced testimony from remote areas, this saved on transportation and security costs.
  • And, he added, this is a very good time for systems integrators like himself to become best friends with a few manufacturers out there, to help test their products and suggest changes before they're brought to market. Heilman himself is a beta tester and advisor for the industry. And he works closely with Boeckeler Pointmaker, particularly in courtroom applications where the annotation devices are sorely needed. "The cooperation from Pointmaker and Hall Research is the kind of partnership that will get us through just about anything."