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When the Georgia Supreme Court justices took their seats for oral arguments on the electric chair last Monday they found a jam-packed courtroom. The next day, however, they found empty counsel tables and just a handful of spectators. The justices hadn’t been stood up by tardy lawyers. Arguments began right on time — courtesy of a remote video conferencing hookup between Tifton, Ga., and Atlanta. In a first for the court, lawyers in two appeals of South Georgia cases appeared before the court on a computer screen, which the justices intently watched. Atlanta spectators saw those delivering the arguments via a giant projection screen hung from the courtroom ceiling over the justices’ bench. The crowd of about 30 at the State Bar of Georgia offices in Tifton watched a divided screen that had an image of each justice. “The attorneys will be on our screen and we assume we will be on their screen,” said Chief Justice Norman S. Fletcher, who called the occasion a “very special day for the court.” The experiment came off with only a few minor glitches. Lawyers had some difficulty hearing the justices’ questions promptly, due to a time delay in the videoconferencing setup. Fletcher said he expected the court to use the new technology more in the future, adding that it should help litigants in South Georgia hold down the expense of appeals. The videoconferencing experiment is the latest in a line of technological innovations at the Supreme Court. Last month, the court began experimenting with “web- streaming,” in which court proceedings can be viewed in real time over the Internet. The objective, says supreme court clerk Sherie M. Welch, is providing greater public access to the court. Welch says the court’s docket should be online soon, and will be searchable by case number, party name or attorney name. CHURCH BUILDING CASE Tuesday’s first case from Tifton was a Berrien County dispute between a church association and a member church. The Holiness Baptist Association, which has 25 member churches, contends that one of its congregations — Vickers Holiness Baptist Church — has withdrawn from the association. As a result, the association says the congregation has no right to use the church buildings or grounds, since they are owned by the association. Vickers, on the other hand, contends it did not withdraw, and that the matter is a dispute over association fees that should be resolved within the church, not in the courts. Holiness Baptist Assoc. v. Barber, No. S01A1175 (Sup. Ct. Ga. arg’d July 10, 2001). Association attorney Ben B. Mills Jr., a partner at Mills & Chasteen in Fitzgerald, Ga., said Vickers had withheld dues, refused to send out church newsletters, and had, in effect, voted to withdraw. Evidence of that, Mills said, was a 1999 letter church officials sent to the association that said the church wanted to “come out” of the association. But didn’t Vickers still claim to be a member of the association? asked Justice Hugh P. Thompson. The church is “brick and mortar,” and always will belong to the association, Mills argued. “The congregation may decide individually or collectively that they are not going to be a member.” Vickers’ lawyer, Thomas E. Pujadas, of Walters & Pujadas in Ocilla, Ga., countered that the evidence showed that at no time did the congregation vote to leave the association. The amount of fees the association had assessed on its members, Pujadas said, sparked “a long-standing dispute between the parties.” The congregation agreed to have its board of deacons resolve the fee dispute, but never voted to withdraw from the association, he added. The appellant, he said, “is trying to take an unauthorized statement in a letter and turn it into a vote.” Is there a justiciable issue for us? Justice George H. Carley asked. No, Pujadas said, adding that it was an ecumenical issue in which courts could not intervene without violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. During Mills’ rebuttal argument, Presiding Justice Leah W. Sears asked the association lawyer why his client didn’t vote to expel the Vickers church. The association, Mills said, wanted Vickers to stay, adding that the church had been a member for 70 or 80 years. “We’d love for them to come back into the fold.” But, he added, the association had the right to insist Vickers adhere to its discipline. ‘SPEEDY TRIAL’ CASE Also arguing from Tifton were attorneys appealing a Wayne County judge’s refusal to dismiss a criminal indictment on speedy trial grounds. Tammy Suzette Brannen was arrested Aug. 4, 1995, for murder in connection with the shotgun slaying of her live-in boyfriend Eric Johnson. She has yet to be tried. Brannen v. State, No. S01A1116 (Sup. Ct. Ga. arg’d July 10, 2001). Brannen’s lawyer, J. Alvin Leaphart, told the justices his client had been abused that day by Johnson and shot him in self-defense when he tried to keep her from leaving their trailer. The incident followed an afternoon of drinking, Leaphart said. When the couple returned to their trailer, he added, Johnson tried to sexually assault Brannen. She later managed to slip out, taking the shotgun with her so Johnson wouldn’t shoot her when he discovered she had left. But before she reached her car, Johnson burst through the trailer door. Leaphart said Brannen whirled and fired, killing Johnson. Brannen was indicted in November 1995 and the case was called for trial Feb. 18, 1997. The state requested a continuance, though, because two of the state’s experts from the GBI Crime Lab did not appear, even though subpoenas had been issued, Leaphart said. Leaphart said the defense wanted to go to trial and offered to stipulate to the findings of those experts. He said he argued, “Look, we agree he’s dead, he was shot with a shotgun, and Ms. Brannen did it.” The state’s request, however, was granted. Brannen’s case wasn’t called for trial again until late 1999. By that time, Leaphart had asked Wayne Superior Court Judge E.M. Wilkes III to dismiss the indictment, alleging that Brannen’s constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated because 47 months had elapsed since her arrest. The delay prejudiced his client, Leaphart said, because while Brannen was awaiting trial, a key defense witness, had died. “What greater peril can there be [than] when a material witness dies?” he argued. Luckily, he told the justices, he had obtained an affidavit from the witness shortly after Johnson’s shooting. According to Leaphart, the affidavit said Johnson had been acting strangely the day of his death, talking about how “the devil had more power than the Great Spirit.” The defense lawyer added that affidavit had stated that Brannen had become afraid of Johnson after he slapped her. Justice P. Harris Hines asked Leaphart if he could use the affidavit at trial. The defense lawyer said while the state had agreed he could do that, “If you’ve ever tried to use an affidavit, it’s pretty poor evidence to substitute for a live witness.” John B. Johnson III, chief assistant district attorney for the Brunswick Circuit, which includes Wayne County, said his office took responsibility for failing to try Brannen for so long, adding that he didn’t have a full explanation for the delay. The two state’s witnesses had been subpoenaed, he said, but were out of the country attending a conference when the subpoenas were issued. This was not a case, Johnson insisted, in which “the witness died and there was nothing left.” The defense’s witness had told police the same story recounted in the affidavit, the prosecutor said, so the state “would be hard-pressed to oppose [its admission].” He also told the court it should dismiss Brannen’s appeal because the defense failed to file a hearing transcript for nearly a year after the notice of appeal. Johnson, in an interview after the arguments, says he thought the experiment in videoconferencing was a good thing, even if it was a bit awkward. The Tifton participants were in a classroom, he says, and “there’s not a whole lot of dignity in that.” “The future of [videoconferencing] is good.” But, he adds, “I prefer going and seeing those folks face-to-face.”

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