Benton County officials offer model of technology on a budget

May 10, 2002

Benton County officials hope their new courthouse can be a model for technology on a budget. The converted garment factory incorporates state-of-the-art technology and courtroom efficiency with a price tag of $625,000.

John Booth Farese of Ashland, attorney for the Benton County Board of Supervisors, designed the layout that transformed manufacturing space into county government offices and two courtrooms. Farese says he would welcome a chance to share what he has learned with officials considering courthouse renovations in other small counties.

"We'll be tickled to death to help any small county that wants to retrofit a courtroom. It doesn't have to be an expensive process," Farese said. "With very little effort and very little money, you can actually bring a lot of these courtrooms into the 21st century."

"It's not rocket science. It's common sense," Farese said. "We just applied common sense to common sense problems and came up with common sense answers."

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman, who visited the Benton County Courthouse during a dedication ceremony on April 20, said, "It is a courthouse of excellent design as far as people flow and paper flow."

Supreme Court Justice Chuck Easley, present for the dedication, said, "They built it for about $600,000. It looks like a $6 million courthouse." Easley said Farese's design "is set up for the presentation of technical evidence. It's laid out perfectly for trials." Easley said, "The citizens of Benton County should be proud. This is an asset they will enjoy and use for generations."

Court of Appeals Judge David A. Chandler, who also attended the dedication, said, "The new Benton County Courthouse, which includes the latest state of the art video and audio equipment, is a perfect example of what Mississippians can accomplish when they all work together toward a common goal. The new facility is very impressive and the positive 'can do' attitude of the people of Benton County is even more impressive."

Circuit Judge Andrew Howorth said, "The county was able to complete the project by today's standards at a reasonable cost. It will serve the future of Benton County."

Howorth, who has presided in the new circuit courtroom, said it "has all the technological advantages, with ease in introduction of exhibits."

Circuit Judge Henry Lackey said, "The leadership of Benton County is to be commended for recognizing the need for an up-to-date, comfortable facility for the judicial system. It's a real credit to their vision and leadership." Lackey called the circuit courtroom "the most up-to-date courtroom that I have ever been in."

The larger of the two courtrooms, shared by the Circuit Court and Chancery Court, is Farese's showpiece. He tapped 30 years of trial practice to come up with a layout that is designed to give jurors maximum advantage in seeing and hearing the evidence presentation.

"What I did was I tried to maximize the use of space by starting with 'Where am I going to put the jury?' and you build everything around the jury box," Farese said.

The witness stand is centered in front of the jury box in the old English style.

"If you talk to somebody, you like to look at them," Farese said. "Basically when the witness is giving testimony, he is talking to the jury, which is the way it is supposed to be." He added, "There is a lot of communication that is non-verbal communication."

The two counsel tables are at equal distances from the jury box - measured to the inch, Farese said. There is no jockeying for who gets the desirable counsel table closest to the jury.

"The judge's bench is relatively close to the jury box and is designed in sort of a 'u' shape so that the judge can go to one side of the bench and be looking eyeball to eyeball to the jury to give jury instructions," Farese said.

The courtroom is equipped for electronic evidence presentation with videotape, CD Rom and DVD players. Videotape editing equipment is in the courtroom. Computer connections are available so that lawyers may bring in their own laptops to aid in their presentations. Wireless microphones allow attorneys freedom of movement rather than tethering them to the podium. An electronic projection system allows lawyers to show documents without having to pass around sheets of paper. All video materials are displayed on three television sets, with a 35-inch model located above the witness stand and two smaller screens positioned on either side of the jury box.

The equipment speeds up evidence presentation. Farese estimated that a complex trial can be tried in half the time that it might take without the equipment. "The more complex the trial, the more the time savings," said Farese.

Farese oversaw equipment selection with an eye for cost-savings. For instance, regular televison sets are used for evidence display. The flat-screen monitors built especially for evidence display are more expensive, but the common household model works fine, Farese said. Officials decided to forego the evidence display feature that allows a witness to draw on a monitor with an electronic stylus. The old way of giving the witness a picture or document and a pen works just as well, and the marked copy can be displayed using the projection system.

"It would cost a lot of money and it wouldn't be any more effective that what we have right now," Farese said. "What we attempted to do is be able to show every type of media presentation that you could possibly show in that courtroom, and that's what we can do at the lowest price."

The county also realized a huge cost savings because it owned the building. The expense was in putting up dividing walls and purchasing equipment.

Farese, using a tape measure, graph paper and available light that streamed through the windows, sketched out an office layout one cold winter day.

Veteran carpenters Thomas Daniel and Joe Lee Smith turned drawings into walls and fixtures with the help of state inmates housed at the Benton County jail. Inmate labor was free.

Farese said the layout fell into place, all the way down to a structural support in the larger courtroom. It provided a place from which to suspend the main television monitor for the jury. A truck ramp provided access to a storage area for voting machines. The old boiler room was converted for heavy item storage.

"It was like God sent down a plan and said, 'Don't worry,' " Farese said. "It was like this project was intended to be because everything that happened - it just happened."

The renovations, done in two phases, created space for the circuit clerk, chancery clerk, justice court clerk, justice court judges, constable, coroner, tax assessor and collector, reappraisal, an administrative office for the sheriff and an office the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The courtrooms and offices for the circuit clerk and justice court clerk were finished first, in the spring of 2001. The other officials were able to move in January.

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MEDIA CONTACT:   Beverly Pettigrew Kraft
Administrative Office of Courts
601-354-7452