Despite the availability of electronic courtroom technology, most trial lawyers still present exhibits to juries the old-fashioned way: holding up pictures; passing documents to jurors, and using blow-ups on easels that the jury can barely see. That is no longer the best way to present evidence, particularly in document-intensive cases, and is certainly an inefficient use of courtroom time. This chapter discusses electronic alternatives to help lawyers present their evidence at trial.
II. Visual Presenters
Visual presenters are electronic devices that combine a video camera with projection equipment. They are indispensable tools for juries, and even mechanically dysfunctional attorneys find them easy to use.
Typically, three pieces of electronic equipment are required to use a visual presenter in court: the visual presenter, a video monitor, and a videotape or compact disc recorder. (Multi-task computers, able to process compact discs (CDs) or digital video discs (DVDs), are preferred in place of single-use recorders.) Support companies specializing in electronic courtroom assistance can pre-wire the courtroom and be available for technical assistance throughout the trial, if necessary. The equipment can be rented or purchased. If you purchase the courtroom equipment, it will pay for itself if you use it frequently.
When electronic courtroom technology was new, many lawyers refused to use it at trial because they wanted to avoid common glitches that caused irritating disruptions. Such concerns are virtually nonexistent with visual presenters because a visual presenter is nothing more than a video camera connected to a monitor. It is better than an overhead projector because the jury sees the actual exhibit - not a transparency.
As the witness testifies and examines a document, the admitted exhibit is placed on the visual presenter and is projected to the jury. The jury sees the exhibit at the same time the witness sees it.
If the exhibit is a photograph, you can save a significant amount of money by avoiding expensive reproductions. For example, if the video monitor has a 64-inch screen, the jury sees a 64-inch projection of the photograph. If the courtroom has a large white wall available to use as a "screen," the images will be even larger. The witness, the questioning lawyer, the jury, and the judge can all see the exhibit at the same time. That is a significant improvement over the old methods of presenting evidence.
It is a simple matter to pre-wire the courtroom, and it should be managed by technical people. You must receive prior approval from the court and make sure that the wires and cables are properly positioned so they do not create distractions. You can typically receive court approval by discussing it with the court just prior to trial.
This writer has never had a court refuse to allow the use of a visual presenter. Juror reaction has been universal: seeing exhibits while witnesses explain their significance is extremely helpful to the juror in understanding and, more importantly, in retaining the testimony.
III. Computers, CDs and DVDs
Another significant development in courtroom technology is the use of computers, CDs, and DVDs. This technology is helpful in effectively presenting evidence, especially in cases with numerous exhibits.
Scanning devices, which transform boxes of documents into easily retrievable computer-stored exhibits, dramatically lessen the potential for trial confusion. Such a system allows trial lawyers nearly instantaneous location and display of exhibits. Exhibits can be “burned” on to a CD and conveniently stored in a tray on the counsel table. If you need an exhibit, you can quickly retrieve it, show it to the jury, and replay it at any time. It is similar to locating a favorite piece of music on a compact disc: press the correct track number on the hardware and the music plays - almost immediately - through the audio system.
While using such technology may not be beneficial for cases with few documents, it is extremely beneficial for long trials where the lawyers themselves have trouble keeping up with all of the exhibits.
How does it work? Original exhibits (such as documents and photographs) are scanned into a computer that can be easily searched with key word queries. To avoid the search process at trial, individual CDs can be prepared beforehand for each day's presentation. (The CDs are similar to the compact discs typically used in home entertainment systems.) When you need the exhibit at trial, you merely click on the title of the document on your computer, and the system retrieves the exhibit and projects it onto the screen.
Computers and compact discs are becoming the preferred method of storing exhibits because they are easily used at trial. If the original document is needed, it is also available and can be viewed by the jury during deliberations.
Using a computer to manage and organize exhibits is affordable and extremely helpful in lengthy, complicated cases.
IV. Who Should Use Courtroom Technology?
Visual presenters are not just for the big cases, the big firms, or during lengthy trials. Any time the jury needs to see and understand exhibits such as documents, photographs, drawings, graphs, sketches, computer printouts, a visual presenter can be an extremely helpful trial tool.
In fact, renting a visual presenter for a short trial that will include many photographs, such as an automobile negligence case, could be surprisingly cost effective. You should compare the cost of preparing the photographic enlargements and blowups of key deposition admissions with the cost of renting the electronic system.
The visual presenter does not replace the exhibit - it projects it onto the monitor or screen. Jurors should still be able to examine the admitted physical exhibit during deliberations. The use of a visual presenter does not prevent the use of a photographic enlargement if it is important, psychologically, for the jury to have an enlarged exhibit to review during deliberations. It is your decision whether to use enlargements as well.
When preparing your presentation using electronic courtroom technology, you should consider the following questions.
- Who selects and sets up the equipment before trial? It is always best to get technical guidance and assistance from competent people. Rental companies and trial consultants provide both equipment selection and technical support and assistance. They should also set up the courtroom. They will make sure that the system is properly tested, on-site, and every cable is properly connected. Once that is accomplished, you will find it easy to use the visual presenter at trial.
- Who operates the visual presenter at trial? You should operate the visual presenter whenever possible. It takes about 10 minutes for a technically illiterate lawyer to learn how to use a visual presenter. There is absolutely nothing sophisticated about it. After a short practice session, the doubting lawyer will realize that he or she can really use the visual presenter at trial and will wonder what all the fuss was about.
- When should you use computers and CDs? It really does not make sense to use such tools in a small case with minimal documentary or photographic exhibits. On the other hand, even if only a few hundred exhibits are at issue, you should look at how the case will be tried. If you use computers during trial, you should store all the documents, drawings, graphs, and photographs on disc. Such a system will allow you to retrieve the relevant exhibit quickly and effortlessly. The amount and use of exhibits are the most important issues to evaluate when deciding whether to use a computer-based, CD-retrieval system as trial support.
- Should you seek the help of technical people? If computer technology make sense for a case, use technical people to assist. Trial consultants with electronic experience are invaluable. They know what a trial lawyer needs, and they have the ability to translate those needs into appropriate trial presentations. They will work with you to put the presentation together and will teach you what to do at trial. A short lesson on exhibit retrieval will erase your fear of technical incompetence at trial. Depending on the complexity of the presentation, technical assistance at trial to handle any unexpected glitches also makes sense. Frequently, legal assistants can fill that role economically and efficiently. You just need to make sure that the technical consultant properly trains the legal assistant. The paralegal can calmly and appropriately deal with typical system problems. These are the same legal assistants who frequently oversee sophisticated computer systems in law firms. Learning how to solve the minor glitches that can occur with courtroom technology is just one more job that they are capable of managing.
Courtroom technology has a future in American trials. In fact, effective and proper use of electronic support usually shortens trial. The general public, our source of juries, is now used to seeing computers on judges' benches and counsel tables in televised trials. It is fair to say that courtroom technology is not only here to stay, it is here for lawyers to embrace and learn to use without the constant worry of perceived technical incompetence.
Updated October 6, 2004