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July 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


JERS and Juries

The jury was at an impasse. Unable to agree on certain details in the case, jurors argued back and forth, getting nowhere—until they projected a key exhibit in the case on a screen in the jury deliberation room and discussed it as a group. Their verdict quickly followed.

"The big difference was that they were able to do it as a group, and talk about the issue collectively," said Chief Judge Robert Conrad (W.D. NC). "They were able to do that because of our district's Jury Evidence Recording System, or JERS."

JERS is Conrad's innovation, a system developed by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina that electronically captures exhibits as they are presented in a court proceeding, and then makes them accessible at a touch of a button to jurors as they deliberate. Usually, jurors must request an exhibit, then return to the courtroom to view it, if it's a surveillance tape or videotape, or pass exhibits among themselves, viewing them individually. They'd then return to the jury room to continue their deliberation. Precious time is wasted.

Seeing how effective and efficient electronic courtroom presentations were, Conrad wondered why that technology couldn't be applied to exhibits.

"It was cumbersome to have the jury coming in and out to handle exhibits," he said. "Why couldn't we take what we're doing in the electronic courtroom and put it in the jury room. Our IT people, the clerk's office, my law clerks, all put our heads together and the outcome was JERS."

With JERS, when the parties in a case present evidence it is either captured electronically through the evidence presentation system or it is given directly to the clerk on a CD or flash drive. An exhibit file is created within JERS with a brief description of the content. The JERS system not only creates a log of exhibits and jury instructions, it can export all the information on a CD or flash drive. The court and the parties in the case may review the captured exhibit to ensure its accuracy and completeness.

According to Conrad, the courtroom deputy plays a vital role in assuring the success of the JERS system, making sure the correct exhibit is captured, that the exhibit has been properly identified, and that the exhibit is available for the jury to review.

"Though I and the attorneys always review and confirm that the proper exhibits are sent to the jury, the courtroom deputy is the gatekeeper and must capture the exhibits in the first place," Conrad said. "Our courtroom deputies have found JERS to be easy to use and very exciting to operate during a trial. They take pride in providing the jurors, counsel and me with a more efficient and professional system to review exhibits during deliberations."

When the jurors begin their deliberations, they can access the exhibits—and even the jury instructions, if the judge so chooses—on a touch-screen kiosk, similar to the self-service kiosks found in airports, grocery stores, and other public areas. All jurors can view the evidence at the same time on a projection screen, replay and rewind tapes, scroll through documents page by page, and even zoom in and out on photographs. They can view the information repeatedly.

While the access to exhibits is easy, jurors aren't inundated with information. In the Western District of North Carolina, when the jurors wish to see an exhibit, they still need to make the request for the exhibit. They just don't have to leave the jury room to receive the information. The court electronically provides any exhibit they request.

"In a recent trial, the jurors requested two videotapes and a notebook with drug ledger entries," Conrad recalls. "After notifying the attorneys in the case, we pushed a button and sent the exhibits to the jurors electronically. A little while later, they wanted to hear the instructions I'd given them on possession and aiding and abetting. The instructions also were sent electronically."

Is JERS speeding jury deliberations? "We had a very complicated, multi-count drug conspiracy trial not long ago," Conrad said. "The jurors were focused the entire time on the case. They didn't have to troop in and out of the courtroom to view exhibits. The case was decided in about two hours."

Conrad feels JERS also is a benefit when a case reaches the appellate stage. Attorneys have access to the exhibits in preparing their briefs, and the appellate court has access to the actual trial exhibits with a couple of clicks of a mouse.

In the Western District of North Carolina, all the courtrooms in the Charlotte courthouse are equipped with JERS. All judges have seen a JERS demo and according to Conrad, most are using it. The district's Asheville and Statesville courthouses are in the process of setting up the system. In JERS' first venture out of the district, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has agreed to be a pilot court for the system.

"We asked jurors about the JERS system and received really positive feedback," said Conrad. "I think jurors who've grown up in an electronic age tend to expect this type of access. And I've been really pleased with the enthusiasm with which attorneys in the district have embraced this technology. They seem to enjoy and appreciate its benefits."

For more information on the JERS system in the Western District of North Carolina, courts can visit http://jers.ncwd.circ4.dcn/JERS-IntroductoryVideo.htm to view an introductory video.