Banking on electronic evidence control

Banking on electronic evidence control

By Mark Chillingworth

Technology controls statements and evidence in Australia's worst murder case.

Snowtown was unheard of to most Australians, let alone the world, but two years ago the town became famous as the home of Australia's worst serial murder case. The continuing trial will see and hear 1,500 witness statements, as well as 7,000 items of evidence. Faced with having to manage the police information, statements and evidence, the South Australian State Courts Administration decided to look for a technological answer.

Two men, John Justin Bunting and Robert Joe Wagner are accused of murdering 12 people, the bodies of the murdered victims were found hacked to pieces in barrels and stored in an unused bank vault in Snowtown, South Australia. Mark Haydon is also standing trial accused of three counts of murder. To date it is Australia's worst case of serial murder. Bunting and Wagner have pleaded not guilty, whilst a fourth man, James Vlassakis has already been charged and sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 26 years, he is now giving evidence against Bunting and Wagner.


Faced with Australia's largest serial murder case, the South Australian State Courts Administration had to approach the court case like no other they had seen. The State Court approached global technology integrator EDS to develop a Courtroom Technology System (CTS) for the trial. EDS has developed these systems for courts around the world. The State Court wanted the new system so that it could reduce the length of time the case would take to travel through the court by 20 per cent.

South Australian Courts and EDS estimated that each piece of evidence takes seven minutes to be seen by all relevant courtroom parties. "We can reduce court costs, minimise the length of the trial and make the court proceedings more inclusive for the jury, defendants and public," said Bill Cossey the State Courts Administrator.

A vulnerable witness room with a video conferencing facility was a key development in this project. Diana Gardner was the client relationship executive and courtroom solutions architect behind this project for EDS; she explained that vulnerable witness rooms are usually linked to the main court room by a CCTV link, but for this case, CCTV was not considered good enough.

Video conferencing was chosen for its two way communications abilities and it allowed the court and the witness to use electronic white boards. Electronic white boards were integrated into the solution as the State Court decided that the evidence required witnesses to pinpoint details exactly, this solution enabled that to happen.

Dr Hank Prunckun, the manager of professional services at the State Court said, "The vulnerable witness room is used every week. It is vital. With the nature of the offences and the allegations, some of the witnesses are not keen to present to the courtroom." Before creating the system for the South Australian State Court, Ms Gardner visited courts in the UK, Florida and Baltimore in the US, and every state in Australia to see how they had solved similar issues.

"We built the specification with the courts, with the whiteboards it was really important for them to illustrate things," she said.


The Courtroom Technology System (CTS) is the software at the centre of the State Courts system; with the vulnerable witness room video conferencing system connected to this. Evidence is stored electronically on the system, which includes scanned documents, imaged files in TIF and PDF format, and police evidence. All scanning was done by an independent company that has a contract with South Australian police. Via the CTS application, the courtroom has access to video, audio and data based evidence.

To ensure the evidence is stored securely, access to the system is via biometric fingerprint recognition login for the counsel and Judges.

"I think the main improvement is in cutting down the time the trial would have run at. It has cut the time down by two-thirds," said Dr Prunckun. He said that the electronic presentation meant that instead of evidence travelling around the courtroom from the prosecutor, to the Judge and to the jury it is presented to them all at once. "We are looking at thousands of items of evidence and we are talking about just two to three minutes per item of evidence," he said of the improvements the system has offered over the estimated seven minutes per item of evidence.

In the case of the Snowtown trial, speed has increased accuracy, where as in other industries it often introduces inaccuracy.

"The quicker things are presented, means that the continuity of the stories of those in the trial can be assimilated quicker by the jury," he said.

The South Australian State Court believes it will see a financial return on this system as well.

"We did a rough cost benefit analysis and the trial without this system could have gone on for over a year," he added that if the case had been judged a mis-trial the economic costs would have been massive and would have easily paid for the equipment, "let alone the PR fallout and lack of public confidence."

All the equipment was purchased and will be used in future cases once the Snowtown trial has been completed.

The case continues.

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