By Todd Smith
Chief CDA Investigator in Lubbock County
Looking back to early March of 2020, it is easy to wish that I knew then what was about to happen. I was talking to our DA, Sunshine Stanek, the other day, and we couldn’t believe our first Zoom office meeting was in the middle of March and that we still wouldn’t be meeting as a group as this article goes to press. If I had known how much time would pass without trials, I would’ve changed a few office procedures and updated many policies. But trials were, we hoped, just around the corner, and it was easy to let days turn into weeks and weeks into months.
With all of this extra time, some people got active with their workouts and improved their fitness, but that seemed awful tiring to me. Others “worked on themselves” and improved their mental outlook, but that seemed awful hard. What I worked on—and this won’t surprise those who know me—is how we could improve the office: how we operate and how technology might improve the way we handle and try cases (when those days return).
Without an in-person conference to update everyone on the “latest and greatest” advances, we thought an article could showcase technologies that may help a prosecutor office run a little more smoothly when we get back to normal. I’ve selected some software that may not be new to everyone, but neither has it seemed to break through as common to prosecutor office systems. Though the old saying claims that “time is money, but money can’t buy time,” all of these products have bought us back precious hours and days in our preparations for trial.
I don’t think anything has changed more in my almost 30-year career as the explosion of video into criminal trials. Cameras are everywhere, and we all know how hard it can be to prepare them as trial exhibits and then get them to play properly in court.
If you put someone on camera for any extended amount of time, there is a good a chance that s/he will say or do something that will not be allowed in front of a jury, so redacting video is now one of my primary duties. Without the right software and equipment, it can be almost impossible between codecs, proprietary videos, videos that should open but won’t, and all the other issues involved in video.
For several years, our office has used two pieces of software for video redacting. Based on performance and cost, I believe these are the two most useful that an office can implement.
Vegas Movie Studio, $49.99; vegascreativesoftware.com. We have been using Vegas since our main police department changed in-car video systems and started using one that places both audio channels (in-car microphone and body-worn microphone) onto one audio track. We needed a way to split these apart for instances in which one channel needed to be isolated. Vegas does the trick very well, and we also found that it is a very robust program that opens most standard format videos that come into our office. The redaction process is intuitive and easy to manipulate, and Vegas has become our go-to program when those last-minute redactions come into play.
Filmora by Wondershare, $69.99; filmora.wondershare.com. As much as we like Vegas, our office is also reliant on Filmora. If a video has a codec conflict or issue in Vegas, then Filmora will be able to open and redact it. Filmora is also an easy-to-use, intuitive piece of software. And when time is an issue, it’s good to have a couple of options when one application doesn’t work.
Both of these video editors do a great a job for us, and having both is advantageous because it seems what one won’t do, the other will. These programs don’t have all the bells and whistles associated with higher-priced editors that really seem to slow them down, and most people pick up on them pretty quickly. I would highly recommend both of these editors for your digital toolbox.
Then-Hockley County District Attorney Gary Goff and I first a used PowerPoint, a laptop, and a projector to present evidence to a jury in 1997. One of the biggest obstacles we had was getting the laptop to project onto the screen without having wires strung across the floor to trip and injure court participants. We settled on using lots and lots of duct tape and dreamed of a day when we could ditch the wires and magically project from laptop to projector. Finally, that day has arrived.
Actiontec ScreenBeam Mini2, $49.99; screenbeam.com. Wireless projecting through Windows has been around for a while, but we were mostly limited to systems that “piggybacked” onto a WiFi connection. The resulting signal was mostly fine for photos and PowerPoint slides but became unworkable when video was needed. It simply couldn’t handle video, and that was a dealbreaker for trials.
Then in 2006, Intel came up with WiDi (wireless display) technology that has been advancing more and more. Today, WiDi connectivity is present on most laptops, and projectors or televisions can be used wirelessly by attaching the Actiontec ScreenBeam Mini2 receiver. The ScreenBeam has an HDMI connection for the TV or projector, and converters can be used for any type of input. Power to the ScreenBeam can come from a regular wall outlet or, better yet, using the powered USB port on the TV or projector, which is really helpful in making a small, compact package—we all know space is usually at a premium when it comes to trial setups.
All the software you need is on the Windows laptop, and it’s a very simple process of connecting to the unit. I have put this device through hours of testing by running video to a screen and still using the laptop for other jobs, and I have yet to see any degradation in the video signal. Our county has equipped each courtroom with this setup without any difficulty. It really is a game-changer in court and would be very helpful for folks doing a lot of presentations.
Video conversion software
iNPUT-ACE, $1,000 per year; input-ace.com. Very pricey, I know. But this software is an amazing time-saver. In today’s prosecution world, we are inundated with video data taken from proprietary systems found at practically every crime scene. These videos are often in a proprietary format and will play only with an accompanying folder full of codecs and files designed to play the video. They also usually consist of nine or more separate camera views (multiplexed), and using all these files to show an event, from start to finish, in court is practically impossible.
iNPUT-ACE solves this problem by converting the video files from a crime-scene video and converting them to a standard format (mp4). Each camera view can then be edited together to form a more understandable “movie” of the scene and events. The suspect can be tracked across camera views in a much more understandable way for the jury.
iNPUT-ACE features updates to stay current with the hundreds of different camera systems that are on the market, and we have had only a few instances when this program couldn’t convert the video. A huge time-saver!
AI automated transcription
Transcriptive, cost varies; transcriptive.com. Many of our attorneys like to generate a transcript of an interview or other video as they prepare for court. They begin with a blank page and start transcribing, highlighting the important parts as a way of preparing for trial. It seemed there should be a better and easier way with all the voice recognition programs out there. That’s how we found Transcriptive.
The gist of Transcriptive is that it allows you to upload a video, and it generates a transcript of that video. The transcript is split by speakers and time-stamped, and the accuracy rate is quite impressive. An attorney should be able to take the initial transcript and review the video while fixing any errors that might have occurred instead of typing it all out completely. A very cost-effective time-saver.
Transcriptive is an add-on to Adobe Premiere ($239 per year), a video-editing program like Vegas and Filmora (mentioned earlier in this article) and would be useful as an office’s main video editing software if you’d like to use Transcriptive as well. (I like the other editors a little better in usability, but Adobe Premiere is also a good tool.) Transcriptive can also be used as a browser-based system without using Adobe Premiere.
Automated redacting software
Sighthound, $2,500 per year; sighthound.com. As more and more officers use video, there will be more and more situations in which a Public Information Act request will come in, and it is incumbent on us to redact the video for license plates, faces, and other personal information. During the pandemic, I have spent hours redacting videos for release, and I have been searching for an easier solution. Using the software editors I have already mentioned will work, but it is a very labor-intensive process of redacting out every license plate from a scene.
The solution we found is a program called Sighthound, which allows a user to upload a video and make selections for automatically redacting certain items from the video. An example would be removing all license plates from PIA requests. With Sighthound, you can open a video and select “License Plates”; the software will search and remove those that it recognizes. The user can then review the video for faces, officer notes containing personal identifying data, driver’s licenses, and other things, and those can be easily and quickly removed by selecting them and then having the software “track” the item through the scene.
This software is an immense time-saver with a hefty price, but it is worth every cent for an office doing many of these videos. I’ve been impressed with its ease of use, and it is CJIS-compliant for video uploads. It is one of the few ways you can literally buy time.
I’ve always heard the saying that “time is money, but money can’t buy time.” This always seemed true—until we started encountering so many digital items in prosecution. Each and every case now contains gigabytes of digital media. From body-cam videos to cell phone downloads, we are experiencing an avalanche of data that has to be prepared for trial. This preparation of digital media has to be done and takes time away from the “regular” job of getting everything else in a case ready for trial. The right tools (software and hardware) are the only things we can use to do both effectively, and investing in them seems more reasonable than adding personnel in this day of tighter budgets.
 I am very familiar with Apple products, and many of these same options are available on Macs, but as county governments are generally Windows-based, I am focusing this article on those programs.