Solicitor's Office plans to go paperless from arrest to verdict

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 2, 2014 

Justice could go paperless in the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

Solicitor Duffie Stone is advocating a new electronic case-management system that would make the judicial process virtually paperless -- from arrest to verdict -- and eliminate rooms filled with files and hours spent at the photocopier.

The vendor would also digitize older case files so they could be stored online.

Stone expects to choose soon between systems manufactured by Karpel Solutions of St. Louis and Matrix Pointe Systems of Cleveland to replace the rooms of old cases and the thousands of files shared among lawyers.

The system would cost about $90,000 up front, to be paid for with drug money seized across the circuit, Stone said. He added that he hopes to have the counties in his circuit pay the yearly maintenance costs of about $90,000. Beaufort County, with the largest population of the five counties, would pay the most, roughly $57,000.

Training costs are built into the program's initial costs. Because the system is based online, no hardware updates are expected to be needed, 14th Circuit office spokesman Daniel Brownstein said.Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic said County Council would have to "explore and vet" the system before making a decision on paying for maintenance.

"It's logical," Kubic said. But it also "has to fit in with all the other budgetary increases we have."

Stone cited an example of the space and time a digital system could save: The contents left over from the trial of Earnest Daise of Burton, who was convicted of two murders in October. Four crates were filled to the brim -- 1,200 documents, 2,000 photographs, six videos and 10 audio files. Stone entered 100 exhibits during the trial, and two more crates in storage were filled with jury information.

Daise's file is just one of many the office creates and stores each year. Stone said the circuit has rooms of leftover files from previous cases, all of which have to be kept in the event of appeals. Physical evidence is kept by the law enforcement agency that made the arrest, Brownstein said.

In addition to saving storage space, Stone said an electronic case-management system will speed the pretrial discovery phase, in which evidence and documents are shared between prosecution and defense attorneys. Instead of making copies and sending them to defense attorneys, files could be uploaded online and accessed by the defense.

Stone said each defense attorney on a case would get access to the site using a password. When the attorney accesses files on the site, the file would be electronically "stamped," showing when it was accessed and by whom. A time stamp would all but eliminate the possibility that a defense attorney does not see files or evidence, which can make the evidence inadmissible during trial or the basis of an appeal, Stone said.

Stone cited a 2007 trial where a man was convicted of armed robbery and murder; three years later, he filed for relief. At the center of the relief hearing were three pages of witness statements -- three pages out of nearly 1,000 pages of documents -- that the convicted man claimed Stone and the Solicitor's Office never turned over.

There was no record to prove the defense saw them. The defense attorney in the man's case was first asked if he had seen the pages in 2012, five years after the trial concluded. Stone said the appeal is ongoing.The system will link to 31 agencies in the circuit: The five jails in the five counties Stone's circuit covers -- Beaufort, Jasper, Colleton, Hampton and Allendale -- several law enforcement organizations, and other agencies such as hospitals, Brownstein said.

Some of the jails post their arrest records online, but others require crime analyst Dylan Hightower to call the jails at 7 a.m. daily to find out who was arrested the night before, Stone said. Hightower then begins background checks on those arrested so that they are ready before bond court starts at 8:30 a.m., Stone said.

In the new electronic system, inmates' information would be updated as they are booked. Information compiled by law enforcement organizations and criminal background checks could be sent directly to the system, as well, providing a profile of the person almost immediately after the arrest.

Stone also saw another feature he hopes to have -- real-time updates on action in the courtroom. A ticker would constantly scroll updated trial information, saving Solicitor's Office staff from having to make rounds of calls each day.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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