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GCN : March 2014
Michigan is a big state, the largest in area east of the Mississip- pi, with 83 counties spread from the Canadian border to the state lines with Indiana and Ohio. It is more than 600 miles from Iron- wood in the Western Upper Pen- insula to Detroit, and there are no shortcuts between the state's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. This means that justice in Michigan can be expensive. In 2009, the state's Correc- tions Department was spending from $4 million to $5 million a year transporting prisoners to hearings in court, and State Po- lice toxicologists would spend several days traveling to testify in routine DUI cases that often were settled at the last minute without trial. There was obvious potential for savings if local courts could be persuaded to use videocon- ferencing for hearings rather than tying up two corrections officers for several days for each prisoner transported at an aver- age cost of $800 per trip. A small handful of courts had their own video systems, but their use was not widespread. "The courts had no motivation financially to spend the money The Constitution guarantees defendants the right to confront their accusers, which raises questions about the extent to which video presence is allowable. Michigan's system has been largely used so far for hearings in which the defendant takes part remotely, but there also have been trials in which testimony has been given via video. "But we've also had murder trials when, with everyone's permission, video has been used," said Michael Swayze, judicial information systems manager for the State Supreme Court. The rules for when video can be allowed still are being worked out, however. Current court rules allow either party to opt out of video testimony in a trial, so both sides have to agree for it to be allowed. But a new rule is under consideration that would give the judge discretion over video testimony. "I could tell you there's no reason it couldn't work," Swayze said of video testimony "But I'm not a lawyer." Despite his enthusiasm for the technology, he admits that, "if I were on trial for murder, I might want everyone there in the courtroom." New rules from the state's Supreme Court would not address the U.S. Constitutional issue of what constitutes confronting a witness at trial. Eventually, the limits of video testimony in the courtroom will have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Swayze said. Confronting virtual accusers CASE STUDY VIDEOCONFERENCING The state has installed videoconferencing technology in at least one courtroom in every county, saving its corrections department more than $1 million a year Michigan cuts costs with video vérité BY WILLIAM JACKSON 30 GCN MARCH 2014 • GCN.COM