ANNAPOLIS – Maryland House Judiciary Committee members were glued to the TV set as a lawyer and former delegate explained how two-way video conferencing could change civil court testimony forever.
The man was just in the next room, but he literally could have been anywhere.
The speaker, Bethesda attorney David Scull, explained how video conferencing keeps a witness from having to testify in person, something which “isn’t always possible, and sometimes isn’t truly necessary,” Scull said.
Delegate Dana Dembrow, D-Montgomery, is sponsoring a bill that would allow chief judges in Maryland district courts to authorize electronic testimony in civil cases at their discretion.
Tuesday was the second time the committee has heard testimony on this bill. In March, older, less expensive technology was used, producing a slow, jerky video. The unimpressed committee withdrew the bill for further study.
The second time around newer, higher quality technology was used and the video came across much smoother, said Joel Levy of RSI Video Conferencing, who sells the equipment. Each package, including television set and camera, costs $12,000.
Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, said the jerky video feed was distracting and no substitute for a live witness.
“The technology did not impress me,” said Kelly, an attorney and panel member. “I still like to have the person in the courtroom. That certainly was not like watching a show on television.”
Kelly and other committee members who practice law said they would prefer to talk directly to a witness. But Levy said some of their problems with the technology can be solved by zooming in on the witness so lawyers can spot mannerisms they normally look for during a live interrogation.
Lawyers also won’t like the technology because they often use the unavailability of witnesses as an excuse for delaying a case, Scull said. Cases have been thrown out when witnesses fail to show. Video testimony could prevent those situations.
Video conferencing already is in use in the Maryland judicial system. Baltimore uses the technology for bail review hearings, up to 1,000 daily. By keeping prisoners in one building for bail review, police save almost $500,000 annually in transportation costs, according to Commissioner LaMont Flanagan.
The committee also heard from Carolyn Benham, a county judge from Colorado Springs, Colo., where courts have used telephone testimony for nearly 10 years.
Benham addressed the committee over a speakerphone in an example of such testimony. She was once skeptical of the idea, she said, but has come to embrace it and uses it weekly.
Every Colorado judge has a speakerphone on the bench, Benham said. It is used only in preliminary civil matters and only with three weeks advance notice in writing.
A judge will admit telephone testimony in Colorado in any reasonable circumstance, said Victoria Villalobos, administrator for Colorado’s fourth judicial district. The witness could be bedridden, may have missed a flight or even might need an English-speaking interpreter, all of which validate telephone testimony, she said. Despite its success, committee members found a problem: how does the court verify the speaker’s identity. “I don’t know how to ever be completely sure,” she replied. – 30- CNS-11-17-99