A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge made Maryland history yesterday afternoon when he conducted four arraignments on television with the defendants, locked in the county jail down the street, appearing before him on a black-and-white screen to answer questions.
"I am Judge Loveless," Chief Judge Ernest A. Loveless Jr. told the inmates, who were holding telephone receivers and watching the judge's face on a television in the jail cafeteria. He reminded them they had a right to an attorney, told them after brief interviews that their cases would be sent to the public defender's office and set their court dates.
"That's it, your honor," a sheriff's deputy in the jail announced after the inmates, whose charges ranged from assault to arson, disappeared from view on the screen. The entire proceeding was over in 10 minutes.
The advent of television in the courthouse promises to bring an end to the long chain gangs that are seen daily hobbling under heavy guard from the jail in Upper Marlboro to the courthouse. Sometimes more than 60 prisoners are shackled together as they move past the Board of Education buildings and through several parking lots to a side door of the court building.
Joe Gallagher, who represented the public defender's office at yesterday's follow-up arraignments, said closed circuit television will eliminate "the degradation of being dragged across in the middle of winter, with tennis shoes and ill-fitting greens the prison uniform and a borrowed jacket if they are lucky, in front of the public."
While court officials do not plan to use the $15,000 television system for trials or sentencings, they said they hope to use it for daily bond hearings by the end of the month.
Under the new system, televisions and loudspeakers are mounted on the judge's bench, the lawyers' tables and the sides of the courtroom, as well as in the jail. Telephones are provided so lawyers can speak to their clients in private.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Ernest Zaccannelli said using closed circuit television will increase security and reduce the workload of deputies, who now spend much time chaining the prisoners. Sometimes as many as 10 deputies must watch the chain gangs and guard them in the courthouse, he said.
The judge said after the arraignment that he was delighted with the operation of the closed-circuit televisions. "It was really no different from them standing there in person," Loveless said. "I could see them, they could see me, and everyone in the courtroom could see them."
Bruce Roberts, a public defender who was with the inmates at the jail during the arraignment, said the prison intercom was noisy during the televised court appearance, but that the problem could be solved. He said the prisoners also seemed pleased with the system and, after spending weeks locked up, "were very happy they were able to see the judge."
Roberts, who regularly interviews prisoners in the last-minute pandemonium of the jail's processing area before they are led away for bond hearings, said the biggest gain is that prisoners no longer face "the chaos and humiliation" of the chain gangs.