Practice with your courtroom props!

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack BauerJack Bauer may be an expert with firearms, but Kiefer Sutherland, the actor who portrays him on the hit show 24, isn’t.  To make sure that the character looks like he knows what he’s doing when he handles a weapon like the Sig Sauer P228 9mm (either with or without the silencer), you can bet that Kiefer spent a significant amount of time familiarizing himself with the prop before they started filming.  Before your next trial, it’s essential that you familiarize yourself with your props, too.

“Wait a second,” you say, “What props?  My trials aren’t like the ones on Court TV.  I’m not bringing any ‘props’ into the courtroom.”

Yes, you will.  Whether you know it or not, during your next trial, you will be handling a variety of props.  Every exhibit and demonstrative aid that you’ll show the jury is a prop.  The computer and the projector that you’ll use to display images are props.  Even the lectern where you’ll place your legal pad is a prop. 

Your goal is to make sure that your prop handling doesn’t interfere with your case presentation.  You don’t want the jurors focusing on your props or how you present the information — you want them focusing on your images and on your client’s story.  To avoid looking incompetent or unprofessional during your next trial, you need to spend some time practicing with your props.   If you don’t, you run the risk of destroying the flow of your presentation or appearing foolish and clumsy.  Here are a few guidelines to ensure that your props enhance the presentation of your case.

Keep your props close at hand.  In every theater performance, the stage manager is responsible for ensuring that all of the show’s props are in place and ready to go.  Behind the scenes, they use a different “prop table” to hold the props for each act.  The prop table is covered with butcher’s paper, and then they draw an outline of each prop on the table, so they can immediately tell whether or not all of the necessary props are present.

During trial, if you’re unable to locate your exhibits or don’t know whether or not they’ve been admitted into evidence, you can lose your mind.  Luckily, you can use something similar to a prop table to guarantee that you have all of your exhibits for trial and that they’re properly admitted into evidence.  The best resource to use is an exhibit list where you’ll list every item that you intend to introduce.  You can download a sample copy here:https://trialtheater.com/documents/Exhibitlogs.pdf

Present your props for maximum impact.  How you handle an object affects how the jurors will perceive it.  If you treat it with reverence and respect, the jurors will think it’s more important than if you carelessly toss it about.  When you treat the firearm as if it’s loaded and eager to kill someone (perhaps even refusing to touch it, asking the bailiff or a law enforcement witness to display it to the jury), jurors will think it’s more dangerous than if you treat it indifferently or wave it about carelessly.  If you ask your witness to put on a pair of latex gloves before displaying a baggie of cocaine to the jurors, you can subtly send a message, “This stuff is dangerous – you don’t want to touch it.”  What message do you want your exhibit to send to your jurors?  Think in advance about how you’ll handle your evidence, so that you send the right message.

Know how the prop is supposed to work.  Play with the flipchart holder until you’re confident it won’t collapse in the middle of your closing argument.  Fiddle with the scale model until you know that it will work the same way every time you demonstrate it.  Mark your photos and charts so you can instantly tell which side is up.  A small amount of extra effort ahead of time will prevent you from stumbling or bumbling with your props during trial.

Make sure they can see your props.  Can the jurors see your exhibits?  Can they see over the rail of the jury box to examine your scale model?  Is the print on your poster large enough for that octogenarian juror to read?  Are the fluorescent lights creating a glare?  Do you need to adjust the blinds so that the sun doesn’t shine in their eyes?  Is your prop hidden behind the lectern or behind the witness stand?  Are you or your witness standing between the jurors and your prop?  Remember, if they can’t see your evidence, it doesn’t exist.

Elliott with an AK-47Be comfortable with your props.  The courtroom can be a dangerous place, especially in criminal court where it’s a regular occurrence to see kilos of cocaine or semi-automatic firearms introduced into evidence.  If you’ve never seen or handled these types of items before, your body language can affect your presentation of the evidence, especially if your hands are shaking when you publish the exhibit to the jury.  Take some time before trial to learn how to handle them safely and comfortably.

Practice with the computer projector.  By the time you get to court, it’s too late to discover your computer can’t talk to your projector or that you’re missing the connecting cables.  Get to the courtroom early to hook up your laptop, set up the screen, focus the image, and make sure everything works.  Since you’re early, go sit in the jury box and make sure you can clearly see the screen.  If you’re not using the projector until later in the trial, learn how long it takes to power up so you can turn it on before you need it.  Make sure you know how to switch the input from your laptop to your DVD player.

Practice with your laptop.  There’s a story (probably apocryphal) about an investigator who was delivering a PowerPoint presentation to a group of FBI agents.  Unfortunately, after connecting his laptop to the projector, he opened the wrong file, and unintentionally shared his collection of child pornography with more than 150 FBI agents.  (Supposedly, he was arrested on the spot and everyone broke early for donuts).

You won’t have anything that extreme on your computer, but you may have exhibits that haven’t been admitted into evidence yet or case notes you don’t want your opponent to see.  Invest some time cleaning up your computer desktop and label all of your folders appropriately, so you don’t accidentally open the wrong folder or file.  (If you have any doubt about whether you’re opening the correct document, simply place a piece of paper in front of the projector to black out the screen until you’ve found the correct document.)

Make sure your laptop is plugged in.  A few years ago, I was watching a community theater show that was using a laptop computer to present photos, audio, and video recordings above the stage.  The imagery and sound were integral to the successful presentation of the show.  Before the show started, the technician checked to make sure it was plugged it, but sometime during the performance, the power cord came unplugged.  At first, no one noticed, because the computer continued playing on battery power.  But then, halfway through the final act, the video (which was integral to the act) suddenly winked out and died! 

Don’t let the same thing happen during your trial.  You don’t want to reboot your laptop during closing argument or scramble for a power solution halfway through your direct examination.  Your laptop has an indicator which tells you if the computer is plugged in or running on battery power.  Make sure you know where it is so you can occasionally monitor it during trial.

Used effectively, props can dramatically enhance the persuasiveness and memorability of your case.  Invest time and effort learning how to properly handle your props, and your case presentation will be smooth and worry-free.

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4 thoughts on “Practice with your courtroom props!

  1. I can honestly say that this is one of the best resources I have seen for trial lawyers. The website is very easy to navigate and the content is excellent. Great job to whomever maintains the site and keeps it current.

    I am also promoting a book entitled “Voir Dire and Summation”, which teaches the best closing arguments and jury selection techniques and strategies.

    Feel free to check it out at http://www.voirdiresummation.com

    Strive to do you best today,

    Ray

  2. Hey Elliot!

    Love the tips. I’m a prosecutor in the largest local office in the country (hint: we’re located in southern california).

    Although some colleagues shun visual aids, I emphatically embrace them. Every opportunity I have to use a visual aid to enhance my presentation I do it. However, one of my great mentors shared a tip with me, that I continue to use to this day, and I’m curious what your feeling is on it.

    My mentors view is that jurors are like 3rd graders — and 3rd graders need to hear the same information 3 times, and, ideally, in 3 different ways. Therefore, I’ll often do my entire direct examination, and ask people to tell us what happened, and describe where they were.

    Once that’s done, I’ll often — in practicality — redo the examination, but this time with visual aids. I find it focuses things, the jury gets to hear it twice, and it also helps me to recall a few details I left out of my “initial” examination. I suppose this could bore some jurors, but, on the other hand, I think it’s more clear to those who don’t process information as quickly as the brightest jurors.

    With one exception, the jurors have told me over and over again, that the visual aids were quite useful to them and they were able to begin their deliberations with a much more clear view of the facts.

    Finally, one other aspect I didn’t hear you mention — actually marking the exhibits. While I use the usual “I hold in my hand a sheet of paper that appears to have a photo of bloody head of a female. . . ” and then I simply ask two questions: “1) do you recognize what’s in that photo; 2) how do you recognize what’s in that photo. . . ” Some of our judges demand we mark it before those questions; some want it marked after. . . as for marking it, I uniformly print P-1 to P-30 on labels, and then peel the stickers off one at a time and put them on the back of my next exhibit. I never need to ask what the next exhibit is, because I simply look at my labels and it’s automatic. The clerk’s appreciate it too, because I never duplicate my exhibit numbers, and she/he can always tell which exhibit number because the sticker is much more clear than some scribble on the back of the page. . .

    Your thoughts?

  3. Thanks for your tips! I wish I’d read this a few months ago. I was in trial and completely botched the presentation. I was trying to use a PowerPoint presentation during the direct examination of an expert witness, and thought I knew what I was doing. Evidently, I didn’t! Things eventually got fixed, but it felt like eternity until I had the computer back under control. The one thing I can add is this: If you screw up, acknowledge it, and show your humanity to the jury. They’ve all screwed up their computers, too, so they’ll be forgiving. (And then next time: PRACTICE BEFOREHAND!) 🙂

  4. I’ve been sharing your Trial Tips on Twitter for some time. I’m glad to see you’ve added the “tweet” option at the bottom of each post.

    Keep up the great work Elliott!

    Yours truly,

    Erik Magraken