Two and a half years ago, policy-makers for the federal courts endorsed the use of new technologies in the courtroom, including videoconferencing equipment, real-time court reporting and evidence-presentation systems that can display digital photos, documents and other evidence.

With this endorsement came federal funding for installing high-tech equipment in new courtrooms and those being renovated--resulting in a veritable technological revolution in the federal courts.

"The landscape of the federal courts has changed dramatically, from a setting that looks like what you'd expect to see on a re-run of 'Perry Mason' to one that looks more like a high-tech conference presentation," says social psychologist Elizabeth C. Wiggins, JD, PhD, a senior research associate at the Federal Judicial Center (FJC).

The changes have major implications for American jurisprudence--particularly how courtroom technologies affect judges' and jurors' decisions. Yet the effect of courtroom technology on the adversarial process has been little studied, say psychologists. As a result, in determining what technological evidence is admissible in court, judges must rely largely on their own intuitions about the effects of the various technologies.

Identifying research priorities for understanding the effects of courtroom technology was the focus of a July conference sponsored by the FJC, attended by psychologists and other behavioral and social scientists, technology developers, lawyers and legal scholars. Following up on the conference, the FJC plans to set up an electronic forum to facilitate discussion and research collaboration among experts in each of these areas.

"Whether we do the research or not, the technology eventually is going to be in common use in the courts," explains FJC social psychologist Meghan A. Dunn, PhD. "To preserve the sanctity of the legal process, we need to know how that technology is affecting trial participants--from jurors and judges to attorneys, defendants, witnesses and even the media."

Theory-driven research needed

The need for more research on courtroom technology's psychological effects is illustrated by the few investigations that have focused directly on such questions. In a recent series of experiments, for example, Ohio University psychologist G. Daniel Lassiter, PhD, has shown that when a videotaped confession shows only the confessor instead of both the confessor and the interrogator, juries are more likely to perceive the confession as voluntary and the defendant as guilty.

Such findings underscore the importance of understanding the psychological implications of courtroom technologies, the use of which may be driven by economic considerations: It may sometimes be less expensive and safer to conduct some pretrial or trial proceedings using videoconferencing or videotape than to bring all parties to the same physical courtroom.

"If you're going to do something for practical reasons," Wiggins argues, "you need to make sure that it's not at the cost of other aspects of the system that you value, such as a defendant's right to confront accusers and the right to an impartial jury."

Although many psychologists have done research that is relevant to issues surrounding courtroom technologies, in areas such as decision-making, obedience to authority and the use of nonverbal cues in judgments of deception, in most cases, the extent to which this research generalizes to courtroom settings remains unclear.

At the FJC conference, behavioral researchers and legal scholars identified a host of questions specific to courtroom technology that deserve greater research attention. For example:

  • How do videoconferencing and videotaped testimony affect trial participants' "sense of presence" at the trial and their perceptions of the court proceedings' legitimacy?

  • Does presenting testimony on videotape affect viewers' perceived or actual ability to detect lying?

  • Do computer animations and simulations help jurors better understand expert testimony or influence their verdicts? And if so, is there an unfair advantage when one side uses such technology but the other does not?

  • How does judges' and jurors' familiarity with technology affect their receptivity to evidence presented electronically?

  • How well can judges and jurors assess the accuracy and authenticity of digital audio recordings (for example, confessions and wiretaps) and photographs, which can be easily manipulated?

  • In the absence of nonverbal cues, how well can remote interpreters understand and convey witnesses' testimony?

  • How does technology affect the judicial process outside of the trial setting--for example, in pretrial arraignments, witness and expert depositions, out-of-court settlements, and arbitration and mediation proceedings?

In addition to discussing these and other questions about existing courtroom technology, scientists and legal experts at the conference considered the implications of using virtual reality technology, or immersive virtual environments, in the courtroom in the future. Such technology might be used, for example, to allow jurors to step into a crime scene or a witness's account of events. Some scientists and legal experts believe it's only a matter of time before virtual reality arrives in courtrooms.

Some legal experts have worried that using virtual reality in trials might undermine the objectivity that jurors are supposed to bring to the legal process. But psychologist James J. Blascovich, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues, "What we're destroying is the illusion of objectivity. You can't make jurors dispassionate."

Blascovich suggests that research on the use of virtual reality in the courtroom must address the same fundamental question that confronts other courtroom technologies: Does the technology bias juries or other trial participants in a way that is inappropriate in the American system of jurisprudence?

Regardless of the technology in question, conference participants agreed, the answer to that question can be derived only from strong, theory-driven research that allows insights into why certain technologies affect judges' and juries' decisions in particular ways.

"It's one thing to demonstrate effects," concludes Wiggins. "It's another to understand why they occur. Psychology can tell us much about those mediating factors, and such an understanding is what is needed to develop suitable policy."