Courthouse technology gets major overhaul

Mario Ornelas, chief technical officer for Ector County, jokingly said Ector County’s Courthouse is finally coming into the 20th Century (not the 21st Century) thanks to $1.1 million in technology upgrades paid for with American Rescue Plan Act funding. (Kim Smith|Odessa American)

After three years of delays caused by COVID-19 and the subsequent material shortages, the Ector County Courthouse is finally undergoing a $1 million technology upgrade.

Courtrooms will soon be outfitted with more and better microphones and the attorneys for both sides will now be able to share their exhibits with the judge using desk top monitors. The judge will have the ability to share those exhibits through computer monitors that will be installed in the jury boxes and new 65-inch screen TVs mounted on the wall next to the bench.

The courtrooms will also have a new recording system and judges can choose to have a video system installed as well, said Mario Ornelas, Ector County’s chief technical officer.

The upgrades have been paid for with American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Currently, there are only two microphones in each courtroom, one on the witness stand and one on the bench. They are analogue and connected to speakers that hang from the ceiling, Ornelas said.

Once the digital upgrades go in, there will be mics at the defense and prosecution tables, the witness stand and the bench. There will also be eight virtual mics installed in the ceiling, he said.

“So the (hearings) are for the record so if there are any issues, there are approximately two to three cameras in the courtroom that record and each microphone has a dedicated line so if the court reporter ever needs to pull information up, he can see line one, line two, line three and they’re all labeled defendant, prosecutor or judge so they can see who said what,” Ornelas said. “With the videos, it’s the same thing. If anything happens, there’s video of what’s said and done.”

Members of Ector County’s IT department show off newly installed monitors in the jury box of Judge Dustin Fawcett. From left, Trystan Crear, Chris Brito, Sylvia Muniz and Bianca Lopez. (Kim Smith|Odessa American)

The computer monitors at the defense and prosecution tables are touch screen, so the attorneys will be able to zoom in on items of note and even circle them, said Trystan Crear, assistant director of IT.

Ector County District Attorney Dusty Gallivan said law enforcement officers today have body cameras, businesses have surveillance videos and homeowners have security cameras and jurors today expect to see them. Plus, attorneys tend to show a lot of digital photographs.

“Most of the evidence is digital, and to present that evidence we’ve had to jerry-rig it in the courtroom to make it work. You know, try to find either a laptop or a Surface or an iPad or something that we can connect to the TV either wirelessly or via cable, and it’s just all kind of jerry-rigged to make it work. The new system will alleviate all. It should be seamless,” Gallivan said.

Ector County District Court Judge Justin Low said when he took the bench a few years ago, if attorneys wanted to present a video, they literally had to roll a TV into the courtroom. Shortly afterward, a single TV screen was installed in his courtroom that allowed attorneys to project exhibits on them, but that hasn’t been optimal, he said.

“We’ve got the one TV and I can’t really see it from the bench very well. If you tilt it toward me then the jury can’t see it and if you tilt it toward the jury than I can’t see it,” Low said. “Then we only have one plug in to it at a time so they have to change cords if the other side wants to put something up.”

Mario Ornelas, chief technical officer for Ector County, said prosecutors and defense attorneys will now be able to share evidence more readily with the judge and jurors from their respective tables. (Kim Smith|Odessa American)

Low is also looking forward to the improved audio system. Right now, it’s difficult to hear the videos or the witnesses, he said.

In the 244th Ector County District Court, the microphone on the witness stand no longer works and witnesses have to hold a portable microphone up to their mouth often while juggling a pointer and looking up at the TV screen.

Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett said the commissioner’s court on East 8th Street was actually the first courtroom to be outfitted with the upgrades.

“It looks tremendous. We’ve upgraded the screens, that way the audience can see well. The technology we use goes to whoever is speaking whether it’s one of us on the dais or one of my department heads, or elected officials off to our right or the speaker speaking at the podium if they’re coming up speaking from the public, it flashes to whoever that is and it gives them a label,” Fawcett said. “It’s great technology that we’re seeing in some of the bigger counties and so we’re proud to have such upgraded and transparent technology.”

The audio visual capabilities int he past was “spotty at best,” Fawcett said.

Soon, the commissioners’ meetings will be available on the county’s website, he said.