Attorney uses Skype in court, nets national attention

By Erin Rossiter

A Gainesville lawyer has received national attention in the legal community for his use of the Internet-based technology called Skype to question an out-of-state witness during a criminal trial.

Arturo Corso of the Corso Law Center interviewed a man in Texas from the Douglas County courtroom where the lawyer’s client, Juan Salazar, was being tried on a cocaine trafficking charge.

The jury watched the testimony on a large flat-screen television.

The idea to try Skype, a Web-based service that provides video phone calls, followed Corso’s unsuccessful request to have the witness made to testify in Georgia.

“Most of the witnesses were out of state, and we didn’t have any money to bring them in. So I asked the judge to give me a material witness certificate. The judge refused,” Corso said, before explaining his thought process. “Well if I can’t do that, can I at least present a witness by Skype?”

Corso’s argument was delivered to Douglas County Superior Court Chief Judge David T. Emerson through the lawyer’s “Motion for Leave to Present Live Testimony via Internet Video Phone.”

Prosecutors first listed the Texas man as a possible witness. Corso’s client, jailed for a year, could not afford to bring the person to Georgia to testify, the lawyer argued.

“The reason I think it was proper in this case is because the state was in possession of evidence outside of the state and beyond the court’s reach,” Corso told Atlanta’s Daily Report, one of several legal publications to cover the court story.

Prosecutors argued against Skype’s use at the trial, citing how in-person testimony satisfying a defendant’s right to confront witnesses also extends to prosecutors.

But the judge sided with the defense.

“He studied up on this and couldn’t find any rule that said you couldn’t do it,” Corso said.

The attorney, who was hired by Salazar, acquired the equipment needed including a flat-screen TV, hi-def camera and computer. Corso provided a camera to the witness, who testified in front of his computer in Texas.

After the trial the judge said he was pleased with how Skype worked outside of some brief disconnections in service, Corso said.

Emerson downplayed the controversial nature of his decision in published reports, pointing to ways video conferencing is used in pleas, bond hearings and some criminal cases, such as those involving children.

Nevertheless, the judge’s decision could have statewide implications as Emerson will soon be heading the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges. He is also a member of the Georgia Supreme Court’s Technology Advisory Committee.

“I’m going to work to encourage the council to study rules on how to take advantage of this technology,” he was reported as saying.

Corso said he views Skype as useful in trials for defendants only because of their guaranteed right to face accusers. To have turned down the motion would have been a “denial of due process,” Corso said, “because the defendant could not subpoena witnesses from another state.”

The twist in the Salazar case was briefed and detailed in various publications including the ABA Journal, put out by the American Bar Association.

The jury found Salazar guilty despite the witness’s testimony through Skype on Feb. 18.

Corso argued his client was a truck driver chosen at the last moment to haul a load of butternut squash from Texas to Montezuma and that he had no idea the cargo included 95 kilograms of cocaine. Officers discovered the drugs in a secret compartment in the truck’s cab during a traffic stop on Jan. 28, 2010.

It was Douglas County’s largest cocaine seizure in history.

“We are looking at appealing the case to see if we can get it overturned,” Corso said.

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