Thursday, July 28, 2011

Computing Technology in My Courtroom

Many people have been asking me about the jury trial I spent most of the last two weeks on. Two weeks of being able to say only "I'm on a jury trial", especially as the trial was pretty intense, was challenging. Interestingly enough, this particular trial was trying out the use of computing technology in a way they hadn't done before so we were guinea pigs. What was most interesting to me was that the technology itself wasn't particularly unusual or radical, but the people in the court were using it for the first time and I got to see how they chose to use it, what worked and didn't work, how it contributed (or not) to the trial process, and how everyone (jurors, judge, lawyers, witnesses, plaintiffs, defendant) reacted to it. There was a tech guy in charge and I wasn't supposed to talk to him (or anyone else). I wanted to find him after the trial was over and pick his brains but he had vanished by the time we were out of deliberations. Too bad.

The trial was a messy complex personal injury lawsuit (now I am allowed to say anything I want). The "facts" were not at all clear. Enormous sums of money were at stake and people's lives on all sides hung in part, in great part, on the credibility of witnesses and the technology they worked with.

A key issue was whether or not one of the plaintiffs had suffered a particular back injury, and what options (surgical or otherwise) were warranted if he had. Spinal injuries are very complex, more than I ever could have imagined. Surgery can involve pulling out all your innards and laying them...somewhere... in order to get access to the spine. Ew. We the jury heard DAYS of testimony from doctors and surgeons about the spine and soft tissue injuries and viewed shot after shot of digital imaging tests including MRIs, X-Rays, Discograms... The courtroom set up a system whereby there was a giant screen TV in front of the jury box; the judge had a monitor, the witness on the stand had a monitor, the plaintiff and lawyer tables had their own monitors and there was a tech guy in the back controlling who could see what and when. Sometimes control was given over to either of the lawyers. Cables ran around across the floor.

Sometimes they wanted all of us to see a Discogram image for example (a somewhat controversial procedure where they stick 8 inch long needles into your spine and ask if it hurts). Other times they wanted all of us to watch a 3D MRI or a simple document display (usually of endless spreadsheets of mind numbing medical or financial data). The images were pretty interesting actually, especially as I have done research into digital image use in medicine and now got to see it put to use in a legal setting. Other times they wanted the witness to see something along with the judge and lawyers but not the jury. Basically, pick your combination, and at some point in the trial any given subset of people were supposed to see it.

Sounds easy right? By the end of the trial they more or less had it down. Here are some interesting highlights of their learning curve from a usability perspective in the juror box.

The giant TV was on a stand about 6 feet high. Hard to move, trailed a long cable and had to be shoved around the room without tripping over other cables. One of the lawyers tripped on a cable early on. (not badly, but it threw him momentarily off stride). The TV blocked some of the jury from seeing the witnesses (not good) and blocked the judge from seeing some of the jurors (not good). We paused while they figured out where to best put the TV. The lawyers and judge could not see what displayed on the juror TV without walking around in front of it. This led to some early significant "oops" moments. For example, one witness was looking at his screen (along with the lawyers and judge at theirs) describing in great detail something about the spine and we jurors were completely in the dark about what was being referred to. Eventually they figured this out and some time was taken to figure out why the connection wasn't working. We started over again.

In another case, the plaintiffs' lawyer thought we were all looking at some emotionally laden photographs the witness was describing, however we couldn't see them. There were quite a few photographs and it went on a while. It turned out that our not being able to see the photographs was a good thing because the lawyer hadn't requested and obtained permission to show them as exhibits (not good). Near the end one picture momentarily flashed on the screen. Our generally genial judge looked rather annoyed when all this came to light moments later. A backroom huddle between the judge and the lawyers took place and I suspect some strong words were exchanged.  In the end we saw none of the photographs and ignored the one we had seen. Had we been shown all those photos which were eventually ruled as inadmissible I suspect there would have been some truly severe backroom lecturing by the judge. As it was, both lawyers were pissed off from what I could tell from their faces, though nary another word was spoken on the matter.

Then there was the witness whose monitor on the stand stopped working and was asked to come down to the big TV. He stood smack in front of it, back to the audience (ever had a teacher do that? :) and had to be gently and repeatedly asked by the lawyer to move out of the way so we could see what he was talking about. The lawyer actually helped him move at one point.

One time the judge's monitor stopped working and they tried to swap it out with the witness monitor which was a few feet away. The cord wasn't long enough. Our very cheerful and friendly judge disappeared under his bench - one moment he was there and the next moment  he was gone. I had glanced away at the tech guy and when I looked back - no judge. Huh? Moments later he popped up, in black robe, happily holding a cable and cheerfully announcing he had figured it out. It was an amusing moment in another wise not at all happy trial situation. We appreciated every rare light moment that came our way.

There was the first tech guy (not the one referred to above) who fell asleep sitting at his little table at the back of the courtroom. The lawyers had been in the habit of requesting him to do something without turning around and it was only when there was no response that we all noticed the poor guy snoozing. Probably bored to tears by all the talk of the T4, L4-L5 spinal disks, protuding jelly globs of spinal material, endless lists of complicated drugs that I had never heard of (and hope to heck never to have to take after hearing about their side effects) and the gorey details of spinal disk replacement vs. disk fusion vs. inserting tubes around the spine full of pain medication....(there was more but I'll stop). After that we got the second tech guy.

I was pleasantly impressed with the grace and patience with which all the court personnel handled the technical experiment. It must have interfered with their usual mode of doing business and caused them to do some cognitive context switching when they least wanted to. From a juror perspective I wonder how they conducted such a trial before? All those complex digital images, some rotating and zooming. The computing setup was very effective in presenting the information under discussion and made it quite clear why there was lack of medical agreement on various procedures and possible outcomes. One variable at least was made less abstract and easier to evaluate in our deliberations.

As a passing note, I want to comment that this experience, in spite of the time it took up and the emotional stress it induced for all the jurors (we compared notes extensively afterwards) was absolutely worth it. My perspective on our trial system has risen significantly - everyone took it very seriously, worked hard together and we did our very best in deliberations. It was a fair process. If you haven't been on a jury trial I suggest you take advantage of it when given the opportunity.

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