Project News: Madison County Courthouse Restoration

Audiovisual systems in America’s courtrooms are nothing new these days. Many of us remember the O.J. Simpson murder trial and how Judge Ito would say, “Put it on the Elmo,” (Elmo being a brand of video document camera).

Most new-construction judicial facilities that Thorburn Associates has designed include some combination of sound recording, sound reinforcement, and video display. Some include permanently mounted cameras for video archival of proceedings. Others use video conferencing for remote arraignment of persons that may be jailed at a facility located several miles from the courthouse – or for remote experts unable to travel to the court facility.

One of the more fun, yet challenging projects for us was designing an AV system to discreetly complement the restoration of an 1829 courthouse in Madison County, Virginia. This historic courthouse was built based on a design by Thomas Jefferson and the current effort to return it to its original glory is headed up by Dalgliesh, Eichman, Gilpin & Paxton, PC architects. The main courtroom layout is quite different from what we generally expect: The jury box is located directly in front of the judge’s bench facing into the room, and the witness stands at a podium facing the judge and jury (instead of sitting to the judge’s left.) Talk about a formal confrontation!

TA’s design provides microphones for recording and speech reinforcement at the normal locations (judge, witness and counsel tables). As in all courtrooms, attorneys occasionally get up and address the jury directly. Small, surface-mounted microphones will be mounted in the railing in front of the jury box to pick up the voices of these wandering attorneys. In addition to speech reinforcement, the ability to record court sessions will be provided. An automatic microphone mixer/DSP (digital signal processor) will condition and mix the microphone signals. A wall mounted audio connector will be provided at the court reporter’s seat for portable recording equipment.

Court stenographers are still being used in many instances. However, many newer courts are implementing network-based recording software that allows recorded audio files to be digitally cataloged and archived. The Madison County Courthouse will choose their recording method.

Hiding the audio system components in this historical space was relatively simple, but video systems presented a special challenge. The video display system will be used for the presentation of video-based evidence that may originate from a computer, document camera, VHS/DVD player or other portable video player. Small, individual monitors were considered but would have cluttered the “old world” look of the Jeffersonian design. Two large, wall-mounted, flat panel displays were proposed, but one would have blocked a new window that the architect had carefully placed near the front of the room. The final solution is a large, motorized projection screen at one side of the room, and a wall-mounted video projector on the opposite wall. Sight lines, though not perfect to all observers in the gallery, will be very good for the judge, jury and counsel tables.
Completion of the renovation/restoration is slated for late 2009. As audiovisual technology system consultants, we often have to wait two or three years for our designs to come to fruition. We believe that this particular courtroom project will be worth the wait.