Local News

Witness in King trial may testify by Skype

SEBRING - For what is likely the first time in Highlands County, a witness may testify via Skype, an Internet service that offers what are essentially video telephone calls, in a criminal case next week. The defense witness, a meterologist from California, has been approved to testify next week during the trial of Christopher King. King is charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child and child neglect in connection with the 2012 death of his daughter, Amelia King, whom prosecutors say was left overnight in a car. The child died from heat stroke. Jury selection is scheduled Monday in King's trial, but the day next week when testimony begins hasn't been announced.
As for the testimony by Skype, Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin said he's unaware of that happening in any other such criminal case in Highlands County. Houchin said the state agreed to that, although "Personally, I like to have a witness live and in person in the courtroom." He said he understands that having the witness testify via Skype is cost effective for the defense. Although the King case could be the first such criminal case having Skype testimony in Highlands County, its happened in other states and even in Florida. The most notable case was that of George Zimmerman, where some of the testimony had to be initially curtailed because too many people were calling into the Skype number. Shirley Whitsitt, the attorney for King, said the defendant is indigent and the resources are limited to bring in witnesses. She said there's a possibility that in the end the witness from California may testify. She said that travel, lodging and flood costs could exceed $1,000. "It gets very pricey very quickly," she said. Jennifer Vedalis, a professor and director of trial practice in the College of Law at the University of Florida, said remote testimony is not unprecedented. At times, she said, they've had testimony by telephone, Video testimony alleviates the need for the presence of someone who can certify that the person at the other end of the conversation is the person whom they say they are, she said. With the defense presenting a witness testifying by Skype, that eliminates an issue that would be presented if the witness were for the prosecution: the right to confront one's accusers, she said. One difficulty for those having witnesses testify by Skype is to make sure that the witness is sitting in a position where jurors can get an adequate view of the person and be able to assess their body language and demeanor, she said. Just because someone sees their image on the computer screen doesn't mean the intended audience has the same view of the person, she said. Another issue is the technology, she said. Vedalis said repeated disruptions, such as in the Zimmerman case, or because of connection problems with Skype, could cause issues. Ultimately, the use of Skype could make the justice system more fair for indigent defendants, she said. If a defendant needs an expert, the state must pay for the expert, but that doesn't mean the state has to pay for the best expert, Vedalis said. Whitsitt said that when she worked as a prosecutor she had no problems getting the expert witnesses she wanted. "That's not always the case for the defense," she said. jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834