New courthouse includes white noise technology
CHRISTIANSBURG – An objection was raised. The jury was escorted out of the courtroom. The prosecutor had just learned some new, delicate information. She asked to approach the bench.
All of a sudden, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Bobby Turk’s face lit up. He let out an audible, “Ooooh!” And with the push of a button, white noise filled the courtroom. The bailiffs chuckled as the few spectators in the gallery looked up and around, confusedly searching for the source of the sound.
The trial – just a week after the new courthouse’s opening last month – was Turk’s first opportunity to use white noise, which sounds like television static, and was placed in eight of the new courtrooms in order to restrict the jury’s or the audience’s ability to overhear certain discussions between lawyers and the judge.
It’s just one of the new pieces of technology in the $20 million courthouse that unofficially opened Oct. 9. Altogether, technology cost more than $500,000, according to Jim Hogan, project manager for IES, an electrical contracting company that installed the courthouse’s technology package.
The nine courtrooms – three for circuit court, three for district court and three for juvenile and domestic relations court – have several new technology features that judges, lawyers and clerks are still learning to use.
The courtrooms, for example, now have large, mounted television screens that can be adjusted to face different directions.
Circuit courtrooms each have two 60 inch monitors, while district and juvenile and domestic relations courtrooms each have one 60 inch monitor.
“The monitors on the side will allow attorneys to bring their laptops in to show evidence,” Turk said. “They can put up pictures to show to the jury or to the court, they can play a PowerPoint or play video presentations.”
By pressing specific buttons on a small touch screen located behind the bench, the judge can now alter the volume of the microphones placed at the prosecution and defense tables and at the witness stand. Using the controller, the judge can decide to video record testimony or play a DVD.
In the judges’ chambers on the fourth floor, which is designated for circuit court, there is a television monitor connected to a camera so that judges can appoint counsel to incarcerated individuals by communicating with them via video, which cuts down on the time and cost of transporting inmates to the courthouse, Turk said. Judges can also use it to conduct required annual reviews of sexually violent predator cases by using the device, Turk said.
The courthouse now has six hearing aid units per courtroom – headphones that amplify the proceedings for the hearing impaired.
In the coming weeks, a video docket board will be installed on each floor that has courtrooms. The television screens will display what court cases are happening and where, directing individuals into the right courtroom.
But much of the new technology has yet to be used.
Turk said lawyers haven’t experimented with the television screens mounted on the walls of his courtroom. County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt said prosecutors have had some trouble getting their laptops to transmit images or presentations to the screens.
Turk said he hopes to hold a training session in which information technology specialists from the county could meet with members of the bar and explain the new technology.
The white noise machine, however, may rarely be used, Turk said. Because of the configuration of many courtrooms in Southwest Virginia, jurors are seated directly in front of the judge, facing the gallery. The layout makes it basically impossible for lawyers to approach the bench while jurors are still seated. Turk said he has used the white noise twice, both while jurors were out of the room.
“In courtrooms where the jury boxes are on the side, it would work better,” Turk said. “But I would be uncomfortable having arguments at the bench because they might hear.”
Hogan said the white noise machine – or “sound masking device” – cost $200 per courtroom. It was placed in every courtroom except for a smaller hearing room on the second floor.
“It mutes all of the microphones throughout the courtroom and injects the white noise into the loudspeakers above the gallery,” Hogan said.
Chris Tuck, a lawyer who was in the courtroom when Turk first experimented with the white noise, said after the trial that he had never been in a courtroom that had the device. Tuck is also a member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors.
Turk said that while the white noise machine was not something that the county specifically asked for while building the new courthouse, it was part of the entire audio-visual package.
And though he doesn’t plan to use the device while jurors are seated, he said it will be helpful when discussing sensitive information that should stay private.
“I didn’t know I would ever use it,” he said. “But it does benefit us in that way.”
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