Legal First: Marine Court Martial Uses Live Internet Video

"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."

Whether video conferencing will make it into civilian courtrooms remains to be seen. While plenty of law firms have video conferencing, the Marine hearing was unusual, according to Peter Nutley, director of global product marketing at Tandberg, which gets about two-thirds of the federal government's video contracts. Courts aren't buying video trials -- yet, he says.

Even if both sides in a legal proceeding agree to video, local court rules will govern whether or not it can happen, says Stanford's Weiner.

"There are important questions that need to be addressed: Is the testimony hearsay? Are there safeguards in place to assure the reliability of evidence? Who was present with the witness during the testimony?" he says, noting that in the war-crimes tribunals, all the lawyers were present with the witness, while the judge was on the other end of the conference.

Who is present off-camera with the witness during testimony is important too, he notes.

"You're limited to seeing what the camera is pointing at, so you don't know if there's someone making faces and gagging gestures -- or holding a gun on the witness -- off-camera," Weiner says. "In a courtroom, a presiding officer or bailiff can shoot you a withering look and restore the formality of the occasion."

Gittens, though, is a fan of video testimony, since last month's hearing resulted in a recommendation of acquittal for his client, Capt. Randy Stone, who'd been accused of dereliction of duty and filing a false report. Another defendant has also gotten an acquittal recommendation, while a third faces further proceedings.

The lawyer says the informality introduced by the video link elicited more forthright testimony. "There was a level of candor there for some witnesses that I don't think we'd see at trial," Gittens says.

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