In a Salt Lake courtroom, a teenage mother testified that her boyfriend had beaten her baby to death because the child had been crying too loudly - disrupting his television show.
But her testimony was not tearful or angry. She described her baby's death in a flat voice. The young girl didn't appear evenly slightly distraught.Emotion surfaced only when prosecutors pointed the finger at her boyfriend sitting at the defense table as the calloused killer. Her tearful response was to defend her boyfriend's actions, emphasizing how loudly the baby had been crying and how frustrated her boyfriend must have felt.
Shaking or wringing hands. Eyes that focus on the ground. Voice inflection - explosive indignation or soft-spoken resignation. All of these human reactions observed by a jury and a trial judge would be recorded on videotape for appellate judges to review - if Utah courts turn to the camera to record future justice.
Adding the emotional element of a trial presents a "big danger" to appellate judges, says Judge Russell W. Bench of Utah's Court of Appeals.
"We leave all credibility assessments to the trial judge - whether a witness is telling the truth. An appellate judge's job is to evaluate if the trial judge applied the law erroneously. The emotional part of the trial is not for our review. It will require a conscious effort to remind ourselves about the differing roles."
Appellate judges will probably resist changing court transcripts from paper to videotape. The most "sellable option" may be to install cameras to record proceedings but provide a written transcript if the case is appealed, Bench said.
Third District Judge David S. Young thinks videotaped court proceedings offer many advantages, but the new technology is not a panacea. Neither is the computer-aided transcription a panacea, he says.
"I think we will have to come to use cameras at some point, but until I'm convinced I could also get a hard copy, I'm hesitant about the transition. If you have a witness on the stand for three days, it's easy to scan through a transcript. Videotape is less convenient."
It will be a natural temptation for appellate judges to become more active in determining the credibility of witnesses as they observe demeanor on a tape, he said. But appellate judges should focus on issues of law.
"Technology offers a mixed bag - new conveniences with new challenges."