Testifying in front of a full courtroom can make anyone nervous. But Deputy State's Attorney Christina Rainville says for children with autism and learning disabilities it can be impossible.
"Bright lights, noises, big open spaces can cause them to shut down, cause them to disengage, cause them to be literally physically unable to speak," Rainville said.
Rainville says for the first time in Vermont, and possibly the United States, a child with a learning disability was able to have their day in court via a live video feed. A $22,000 grant helped the Bennington District Court install technology that allows people to testify in a separate room. The live video feed is displayed on dozens of monitors throughout the courtroom.
Rainville says the child that spoke in front of a camera would have never been able to testify in the regular court setting.
Since the 1980s, children in sex abuses cases have been legally allowed to testify by video. Rainville says the technology was originally installed in 2011 to help children who had been sexually abused testify.
"So, what we were finding was that the more horrible the case was, the stronger our evidence. Those were the cases that we would have to plead down because we didn't have the ability to have the people testify outside the courtroom," Rainville said.
But now for the first time ever, Rainville says this technology finally enables children and adults with disabilities testify in the courtroom.
"The technology, while it seems nice in theory, just isn't up to snuff," said Dan McManus, a Bennington lawyer.
McManus was representing the defendant during the video court hearing. He says the setup was such that if his client had not been acquitted, he is certain he would have won on appeal.
"One of the biggest concerns in terms of a jury trial is you want the jury to have an opportunity to observe the witnesses' demeanor as they speak. In this case, the video quality was so poor, that you really couldn't make out the child's face as he testified," McManus said.
Rainville says the technology does need fine-tuning, but at least the first steps have been taken.
"The child really wanted to testify and he got his day in court," Rainville said.
And for disability advocates, like Kim Brittenham from the Vermont Center for Independent Living, it's an important change.
"It's not always the person with a disability that's benefiting, it's the community that's benefiting by hearing from people with disabilities," Brittenham said.
Rainville says she doesn't believe the court will use the technology often, but at least the option is there.
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