Technology in the courtroom

As part of an assignment for their trial advocacy class, third-year law students Kaitlyn Charette and Christian Hoefly conducted a cross-examination of an “expert witness” during a fictitious case involving the shooting death of a police officer. But instead of just arguing their case in the traditional way, they captivated the jury -- made up of fellow classmates -- with striking visuals.

To plead her case for the defense, Charette used a document camera to exhibit a colorful graphic of bullets collected from the crime scene to determine if the characteristics of the test-fire bullet matched the bullets found at the scene. “I wanted to show the jury the validity of the expert witnesses’ testimony regarding the ballistics examination and address the possibility that the officer may have been shot by friendly fire,” said Charette. “I felt confident the visual clearly showed similarities in the bullet fragments and, therefore, would cast doubt over accusations that my client fired the fatal shot.”   

Afterward, Hoefly, serving as the prosecutor representing the state, used an electronic illustration he hoped would discredit the defense’s expert witness. “I used the diagram to establish that measurements taken of crucial evidence were unreliable and to bait the expert into discrediting the illustration,” said Hoefly. “Once he stated the drawing was unreliable, I was able to ask him if he used the measurements to form the basis of his opinions. When he answered ‘yes,’ the inference was left for the jury to conclude his expert opinion was also unreliable.”

The class, taught by Philip Sechler, attorney and professor from practice at Penn State Law, introduces law students to fundamental trial skills, rotating them between playing the roles of witness, attorney and jury during each case assignment. Their mock trial presentations are conducted in the high-tech Apfelbaum Courtroom in the Law School’s Lewis Katz Building on University Park campus.

The courtroom is equipped with the latest trial technology, enabling students to show exhibits, deposition clips and computer-generated animations and illustrations. A powerful LCD projector displays digital evidence on a 10-by-8-foot screen. Small, flat-panel monitors at the judge’s bench, witness stand and each jury seat offer a close-up view of evidence presented on the larger screen. A larger, flat-panel monitor is also located in the public seating area for those in the gallery. The room even has a touch-screen telestrator that enables student litigators to draw freehand sketches over a still or moving electronic image.

All the technology in the room is managed by a touch-panel control pad at the clerk’s desk. Before any document from counsel is presented to the jury, the judge reviews it on his or her screen.   

Computer animation and visual aids like the ones Charette and Hoefly used for their presentations are increasingly popular tools among litigators. Visual aids also can enhance complicated concepts according to Sechler. “Graphs, charts and pictures can show the relationship of numbers much better than a particularly intricate explanation," he said. But on the other hand, Sechler says litigators shouldn’t let the technology become a substitute for effective communication. “I’ve seen lawyers rely so much on technology they forget what it means to just be an effective, credible advocate for their client.”

Hoefly sees technology as both a benefit and a potential distraction and says it shapes the way he approaches his arguments. “When I sit down to plan an opening statement or a cross examination of a witness for class, I want to make sure any exhibit I’m showing to the jury has a purpose and doesn’t distract from the conversation I’m attempting to have with them,” he said.

Given their daily experience with television, the Internet and other types of visual media, today’s jurors are easily distracted, and they expect to see evidence as well as hear about it. Research shows jurors are usually not paying attention 12 of every 60 seconds and they tend to reach decisions quickly. In fact, most jurors develop their opinions early in the case and filter information through this view. “Visuals keep jurors engaged,” said Sechler. As a result, he says litigators who use visuals that consistently support the story or themes of the case will have a definite advantage.

Charette has learned how important visuals are when trying to reach a jury. “I think technology has a huge impact on the way cases are presented -- it brings the characters to life and adds a whole new dimension to our advocacy class,” she said. But she has also learned if a litigator is going to use anything that’s going to be projected they need to explain it to the jury if they want jurors to understand it and have time to think about it. “For instance, I used a lot of quantitative data in my ballistics diagram, so I made sure to put a ruler next to each bullet to help the jury better grasp the concept and identify with the argument I was trying to make.”    

Because of the way case assignments are structured in the class, there are no determined winners or losers. Guest judges and lawyers from Centre County are brought in during the mock trial sessions to serve as instructors, critique student performances and offer constructive criticism. “The feedback on my cross-examination was positive,” said Hoefly. “The instructor pointed out that the diagram drove home the unreasonableness of the witness’s testimony and visually tied together the whole impeachment of him.”

And even if there are no winners and losers in the Apfelbaum Courtroom, Hoefly can count that as a win.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

Last Updated July 22, 2015