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Quincy court going live on the Web

By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / May 2, 2011

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Today, an experiment uniting the Internet, citizen bloggers, and the public’s right to know with the judicial system will start in one of the state’s busiest courthouses, Quincy District Court.

Dubbed Open Court, the project will have cameras and microphones operating today in the Quincy court’s first criminal session. At the same time, the court’s proceedings will be streamed live over the Internet at the new website created solely for Open Court — to give the public an unfiltered view of court proceedings. The site is www.opencourt.us.

Fueled by a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, the experiment is being overseen by WBUR-FM and has the backing of defense lawyers, Norfolk prosecutors and by the judiciary, including Judge Mark Coven, the presiding justice in Quincy.

In that same courtroom there will be an operating Wi-Fi network and reserved space for citizen bloggers who want to post to the Internet.

“The idea is that people can live blog, but they can also tweet,’’ said John Davidow, executive editor in charge of new media at WBUR, who developed the idea for the project.

In a summary of the ideas underlying the experiment, Davidow and supporters write that the traditional window into courts — journalism — no longer has the resources it once had.

At the same time, despite the widespread attention given to criminal trials by the media, most of the public does not fully understand how the courts function.

OpenCourt.us is desperately needed to fill this information gap and rebuild this bridge to our nation’s courts . . . using digital technology,’’ according to the summary.

In an interview, Davidow said conversations between judges, clerks, lawyers, and prosecutors led to a set of operating principles for the experiment.

For example, he said, judges are the ultimate controllers of the camera: If they want it shut off, that is what will be done.

The camera will also be shut off when required under existing court rules and for domestic violence cases.

“We are the conduit for this,’’ Davidow said of the streaming video WBUR will generate. “The judges are really the ones who control what going on in their courtroom.’’

Planners have kept certain parts of the courtroom free of electronic ears so that attorneys and clients can talk without being overheard, Davidow said.

Today, the system is set to function in the first session. In Massachusetts courtrooms, the first session is just what it sounds like. For most criminal cases, for example, it is the first time the defendant appears before a judge since his or her arrest.

For many defendants, especially those getting court-appointed representation, it is also the first time they are meeting their lawyer.

Davidow said that during the next year, the goal is to move the experiment outside the first session courtroom. He said the hope is to stream criminal and civil trials and small claims cases as well.

“Judge Mark Coven is very interested in demonstrating the role of the courts in the community,’’ Davidow said. “He wants to make this a rich experience for the court and the community.’’

John Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.