The military can be credited for pioneering a wide-range of technological innovations from radar, to food preservation, fighter jets, and the Internet. It is more unusual to see the military leading the charge to bring judicial practices in line with modern conveniences, but the Haditha military justice tribunal broke ground by acquiring testimony through the virtual courtroom of video conferencing.
International tribunals have relied on using two-way live video streams over the Internet in order to make it easier for witness to testify from remote locales, but the technology has been slow making it into civilian or military courtrooms. As Wired reports, the Haditha case has begun to change that.
Though the hearing was being held at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego, testimony came from a half-dozen people who never made it out to California, including a two-star general at the Pentagon, a first lieutenant in Kuwait, and a Marine on a ship en route to Iraq.
The video signals were encrypted for security and transmitted over DOD switches or the Internet, only encountering serious connection difficulties with the witness on the ship--the moving vessel making it more difficult for the satellite to maintain a lock on the target.
The Haditha tribunal provided a kind of test run, but it remains to be seen if the technology will ever become more widely used. Wired reports mixed responses to the experience:
The video testimony was praised by some lawyers in the case, where three enlisted men have been charged with murder, and four officers face dereliction of duty and filing false report charges for not investigating the November 2005 deaths of 24 Iraqis.
"We might not have gotten some of the testimony without it," says Charles Gittens, who represents one of the officers. "They would have declared the general unavailable and, let's face it, some of these (active-duty Marine) witnesses may not live to trial."
Other attorneys, including Brian Rooney, who represents Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, say their clients were cheated of a fair hearing by the technology.
"The whole idea is to allow the tryer of fact to observe the person being questioned," Rooney says, citing the constitutional right to confront an accuser. "You pick up a little of the body cues from how their hands are held, from their eyes, from how they sit."
The seriousness of the occasion may be lost on the witness, Rooney says. In the Haditha case, one witness, 1st Lt. Adam Mathes, sprawled out carelessly in a conference-room chair during his testimony from Kuwait. And Maj. Gen. Richard Huck's aides were reading and making faces while the general waited for the video conferences to resume.
"When you have a guy or gal in the (witness) box it creates a sense of seriousness video conferencing doesn't have. You get language you wouldn't get in the courtroom, like a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF) statement from Mathes," he says. "The only reason we agreed to this was we were told they wouldn't be available otherwise."