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Order In The Court

Technology can often be intimidating for inexperienced users, especially in a high-stress courtroom environment. But when properly designed and installed, AV technology can also make a courtroom more effective, as Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird discovered.

CHALLENGE: Create an environment designed to simulate a real courtroom experience capable of capturing every aspect of legal proceedings, enabling attorneys and witnesses to review their actions, study jury responses and deliberations, and better prepare themselves for court.

SOLUTION: Install an automated system encompassing cameras, video displays, and audio equipment that can record all courtroom activities for later recall.

TECHNOLOGY CAN often be intimidating for inexperienced users, especially in a high-stress courtroom environment. But when properly designed and installed, AV technology can also make a courtroom more effective, as Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird discovered. With several regional offices throughout the country, Alston & Bird is a major U.S. law firm with an extensive national and international practice and 700 attorneys. The firm provides litigation, tax, intellectual property, technology, and transactional services.

To enhance support for its staff and clients, the firm's partners sought a facility that would allow the courtroom environment to be re-created — including the ability to record actual courtroom proceedings — to help prepare attorneys and their witnesses. The firms' partners and AV staff spent nearly two years visiting courtrooms across the country to compile a wish list of technology and features. During their visits, it became clear that while AV technology could be extremely beneficial, it could also be both intimidating and counterproductive if its implementation didn't properly account for the stressful nature of a court of law.

While the AV technology in the Alston & Bird mock courtroom is central to the activity that takes place there, the firm didn't want the technology to distract from the facility's purpose as a court of law. “The main concern was that the courtroom remained a courtroom, with the technology being as visually transparent as possible so as not to distract from the proceedings,” says Chris Harkins, multimedia supervisor for Alston & Bird.

The firm decided that the high-tech facility needed to maintain a courtroom appearance free of technological distractions, and the system itself had to be easy to operate. Armed with a well-defined vision, Alston & Bird turned to Atlanta-based architectural design firm Carson Guest and Norcross, GA-based Technical Innovations for the AV design-build aspects of the project. Technical design planning was initiated in February 2003, and the project was completed in September 2004 after four months of construction at a cost of $500,000.

Courtroom aesthetics set the tone

At first glance, Alston & Bird's mock courtroom is a facility consisting of a judge's bench large enough to accommodate three judges, a witness stand, a podium, tables for the prosecution and defense, and a jury box. Throughout the room, an anegre wood with a polished lacquer finish offers striking visual appeal. With the exception of four Panasonic AW-E600 cameras (ceiling mounted in the corners of the room) and a 42-inch NEC PX-42VP4A plasma display wall-mounted behind the jurors' area, nothing appears unusual about the facility.

The courtroom is controlled via Crestron's eControl2: C2ENET with Pro2 and AV2 processors. Jim Lanier, AV design engineer for Technical Innovations, designed and integrated the system, programming it to address the multiple audio and video feeds necessary to record all of the activity in the courtroom as well as the integration of the MSInteractive Perception Analyzer (see sidebar).

Lanier says the most pressing challenge with this project was determining all of the possible information sources, and programming the control system to readily accommodate each option. “What's so important in order to make this type of project successful is to capture all of the information you can simultaneously,” Lanier says. “In this case, we're talking about multiple sources of audio, video, and data collection from the jurors. By collecting this information, the client is then able to go back and review arguments from multiple perspectives — because you don't always know what you're looking for until after it actually happens.”

With the exception of the adjacent control room, the judge's bench is the most comprehensive station in the system because he or she determines what materials the court can examine. This station is equipped with two Crestron TPS-6000 touchpanel controllers. These panels are programmed with a button that simultaneously activates sound masking (using a ClearOne XAP 800's noise generator) over the jury box, mutes all microphones in the courtroom, and switches all controllers and displays to a default screen. Primarily used when the judge asks counsel to address the bench, the sound masking function prevents the jury from overhearing private conversations between the attorneys and the judge.

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