Written by Colin Wood
The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission plans next week to begin training its public defenders to use a new web-based software platform that can help them sift through countless hours of police body camera footage, 911 calls and interrogation videos.
The training comes after the commission, which assigns public defenders to represent criminal suspects in the Commonwealth, signed a contract last month with JusticeText, the developer of the software. JusticeText was piloted in 2021 in which more than 100 lawyers, investigators and commission support staff found that the tool could potentially cut the time it takes to sort through audio and video evidence in half.
Devshi Mehrotra, chief executive and co-founder of JusticeText, told StateScoop that these time savings allow lawyers to be better prepared to defend their clients.
“The police culture hadn’t really changed after the body cameras were used because the police knew that no one was watching hours and hours of this footage,” she said. “But after deploying this technology, after launching the pilot project, public defenders in Richmond began to come to their hearings much better prepared.”
Mehrotra said audio or video clips uncovered by her platform can give lawyers evidence that contradicts the testimony of police officers, who she says sometimes omit details from their reports and cause cases to be dismissed.
“When you tell a sequence of events, you can mix things up, which can make a very big difference in a lot of these types of cases and the final verdict,” she said.
Mehrotra, who co-founded JusticeText in 2019 with a University of Chicago classmate, said his company’s goal is to improve criminal justice outcomes for low-income defendants. Virginia’s 460 public defenders are busy, sometimes assigned to as many as 100 cases at a time.
JusticeText uses a machine-learning speech recognition algorithm to create transcriptions of all user audio or video streams in its web interface. It uses natural language processing to spot keywords in these transcripts, alerting users to the most salient parts of the recordings, such as any mention of drugs or weapons or when an officer reads Miranda’s rights. The platform also contains a video editing suite for defendants to prepare evidence for court and share documents with other public defenders.
“When technology is integrated into the justice system, it is always designed for law enforcement,” Mehrotra said. “If you look at the state of resources, technology, personnel in many public defense agencies, it’s really shocking. Our technology can also be used by both parties, but we made the very intentional decision to focus from the start on selling to public defenders.”
Prior to landing its contract with Virginia, JusticeText signed contracts with public defender offices in Harris County, Texas; Orange County, California; and Washington, D.C. Mehrotra said she doesn’t yet have specific stats on how her software improves results, but said there are many anecdotes from users about how they save time and present better cases in court.
In 2018, body cameras were used by 80% of major police departments nationwide. And 80% of criminal defense cases in Virginia involve digital evidence, an endless stream of information that is only growing as new cameras are installed every day. In a survey by the Commonwealth Indigent Defense Commission, 73% of public defenders said that reviewing body camera footage sometimes prevented them from completing other work related to the case.
In video interviews with JusticeText, some attorneys have praised the platform for its ability to save time finding relevant evidence and bolstering their cases. Tracy Paner, a public defender in Richmond, Va., one of the cities involved in the recent pilot, said the amount of footage her office had to review was “astronomical”.
“What was really amazing was watching the judge’s reaction hearing them, because we’re ready in court with the video or a clip to play to impeach the officer and the judges head is exploding,” she said. “And you know, without that video, they’re still going to believe what the officer has to say.”