Updated: Videoconferencing used in Juneau homicide trial

Monday is the tenth day of the David J. Paul homicide trial and the seventh day set aside for evidence presentation and testimony.

Paul is facing murder and manslaughter charges in connection with the death of four-month old Rian Orr in August 2010. Orr was the biological daughter of his then-girlfriend Jaki Orr. But by most accounts, the then 22-year old Paul cared for the baby as it was his own. In some interviews with investigators, Paul even refers to Rian Orr as his child even though it was conceived by one of Paul’s friends before Paul got back together with Jaki Orr.

On the ninth day of the trial on Friday, Dr. Naomi Sugar, a pediatrician at Harborview Medical Center and Seattle Children’s Hospital, testified for roughly five hours from her home by videoconference. It was possibly the first time that testimony was taken in such a way in a criminal proceeding according to Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg. But it was fraught with technical issues. On occasion, Doctor Sugar could not hear questions or objections to questions because she heard only what the webcam microphone picked up. Her audio was not tied into the in-court audio recording system.

“Her prognosis was grave,” said Dr. Sugar after the baby had arrived at Harborview.

Dr. Sugar, who specializes in child abuse pediatrics, was called in as a member of the Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect or SCAN team just after the baby arrived at Harborview. Doctor Sugar reported signs of a possible earlier fracture to Rian’s right femur which she referred as a CML or classic metaphyseal lesion, two earlier rib fractures, somewhat recent chest bruising, recent hemmorghing inside the skull case with the brain, and brain swelling.

I also concluded that with number of findings that we had – the head injury, the bruises, the healing rib fractures, and the CML – that the findings were very highly concerning for child abuse. And I had diagnosis at that point of inflicted injury or child abuse”

As for the baby’s brain injury, she reported that it could have been the result of shaking or the baby being thrown onto a soft surface like a bed. She reported that a brain of baby is more gelatanous than perhaps an older brain. But she testified that the injury wasn’t exclusively the result of Shaken Baby Syndrome, a now-unused term that has been determined as not the only way to cause such injuries.

Here’s Doctor Sugar under cross examination by public defender Eric Hedland.

“Can we agree that a three-foot drop on a linoleum floor without (an) external head injury could not have caused the injury that Rian suffered here?” asked Hedland.

“We can,” answered Dr. Sugar.

“Any question about that?”

“There’s not any question in my mind.”

The prosecution hopes to rest their case as soon as tomorrow. Then the defense will have an opportunity to present their case.

Original story:

Dr. Naomi Sugar still had to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but she didn’t have to stand up to do it. She would’ve been out of frame. Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO News

The picture to the right is what jurors and attorneys saw on Friday instead of a witness sitting in the witness box.

Dr. Naomi Sugar of Harborview Medical Center and Seattle Children’s Hospital testified from her home office in the David J. Paul homicide trial in Juneau Superior Court.

It may be the first time that a witness testified remotely to the Dimond Courthouse with video conference technology, according to Judge Philip Pallenberg. He read a relatively new court rule to Dr. Sugar regarding her review of exhibits and other documents at her home office.

Dr. Naomi Sugar is a consulting physician in the relatively new specialty of child abuse pediatrics and her testimony was crucial in the Paul trial. But a shifting trial schedule and Dr. Sugar’s own busy work schedule prompted the videoconference alternative instead of flying her to Juneau at the expense of additional money and possible delays.

The top image on the screen is Dr. Sugar while the bottom image is a reverse angle of the courtroom that is being viewed by her.

While the testimony by video conference certainly saved on travel time and expense, there were some kinks in the technology that still need to be worked out.

The witness, lawyers, and judge occasionally talked over each other because of the delay caused by internet lag. There was also the issue of the courtroom microphones and the soundsystem not connected up to the webcam. Public defender Eric Hedland became frustrated because he had to shout from his table halfway across the courtroom or into the PA system just so that Dr. Sugar could hear his questions. She could only hear him through the webcam microphone.

Juneau Superior Court 5-30-13

This is what it usually looks in a courtroom normally usually reserved for Superior Court or felony proceedings at the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau. The videoconference setup was located between the witness stand (right) and jury box (far right out of frame). Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO News

While this may be the first time that a witness testified by videoconference, it’s not the first time that Dimond Courthouse staff have experimented with the technology. Judges, who sometimes preside over cases from other locations by telephone, have also been videoconferenced into Juneau courtrooms for other short hearings.