High-tech persuasion Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002
It wasn't long ago that witness depositions and fingerprints were considered the most important evidence in a trial, but that time has long passed.

Today, fingerprints are studied and depositions taken, but advances in technology lead lawyers, police officers and investigators to demand more.

In the past decade alone, DNA testing and strand and fabric analysis have become the norm. The new millennium promises greater change aimed at helping lawyers present their cases in high-tech fashion.

The goal is to engage jurors while at the same time educating them with a persuasive case. After all, we live in an era in which we opt for quick Internet news headlines via a personal digital assistant or cell phone (or soon, both in one device) and talk shows rather than a newspaper or magazine.

Lawyers, then, have no choice but to offer jurors the same glossy high-tech presentation or risk losing their interest and the case. At the same time, they must present complicated scientific evidence. So how do they overcome the challenge of both tasks?

Dan Copfer, president of Visual Evidence, has made a business of incorporating technology into the courtroom. He says there are several ways technology will invade the courtroom in the coming months, including what the new justice center will offer.

Satisfying the TV crowd

To keep a jury's attention, information today is presented more visually.

"The approach to presenting the trial has changed over the years now that we're in the commercial driven television age," Copfer says.

He says today's jury is made up of baby boomers -- the "TV crowd," as he puts it -- for whom pictures are more digestible than words.

Lawyers, he explains, are presenting more cases via laptop computers in an interactive format in which graphics are projected from the laptop onto a screen. This technique is especially useful for the presentation of statistical data such as charts, graphs and trends, as well as detailed maps of locales, documents or video depositions.

Videoconferencing is another way lawyers are implementing technology.

"If doctors or experts can't come to town for a trial, we bring them in by videoconferencing, live," says Copfer. "They can be sworn in and testify" without the the time and cost of travel. Videoconferencing is sometimes preferred for security reasons, since a violent prisoner can be kept in jail during arraignments.

Lawyers are also able to use the Internet to file cases electronically and see real time court reporting. Irene Renillo, co-owner and partner in Renillo Reporting Services, says she realizes the demand for lawyers to be in 10 places at once can be quelled by putting court reporting on the Internet. Now, they can read what is being said in a courtroom anywhere in the world with a delay of only a few seconds.

"Litigation changes your life dramatically," says Renillo. "By using videoconferencing or Web depositions, lawyers are able to live better."

And, because they can access information from home, they are able to "protect the priorities in their lives."

Keeping a lid on costs

Like Renillo, Copfer notes the cost savings involved in using technology in the courtroom.

Copfer, who was on the design committee for the new federal courthouse being built downtown, says that in six of the new courtrooms, the federal government is paying for electronics that lawyers previously had to pay for themselves by hiring a company like his.

"By the court's paying for this, it brings the playing field even -- small businesses have the same access to electronics as wealthy companies," says Copfer. "They still have to put a program together, but the equipment is there."

As an example of how high technology costs could be if attorneys were forced to foot the bill themselves, Copfer points to the tobacco trial in Akron last year. Rental costs for electronics ran upwards of $10,000 per week.

Instead, courtrooms in the justice center will offer monitors for each juror, Internet access at consul tables for quick access to case histories and what Copfer calls the "John Madden coach system," likening the traditional technique of drawing football plays on a television monitor to a new way of signing documents in the courtroom. For example, a doctor can now circle or indicate a name on a document from a monitor.

Courtrooms will also be equipped with headphones that are hooked up to the microphone system for the hearing impaired.

So how will this change the way the legal system operates? Not much, Copfer says. But, it will change the tools used by the players. How to reach: Renillo Reporting Services, (216) 523-1313; Visual Evidence, (216) 241-3443

Courie Weston (cweston@sbnnet.com) is a reporter for SBN.