Quick and Easy Trial Graphics

How many times have your witnesses found themselves at a loss for words while trying to explain what happened to them or trying to explain what they saw?  It happens more often than you’d like, doesn’t it?

Early in my career, I was defending a motion to suppress in a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) case.  The issue was whether or not the police officer had a valid reason to stop the defendant’s car.  When I asked the officer about the reason for the stop, he told us that the defendant had made a “wide turn.”

“Could you explain that for us a little better, so that we understand what you saw?”

“He made a ‘wide’ turn.  It was a lot wider than a normal turn — he went out of the normal pathway for a turn, way out of the way, almost driving off the roadway.  I’m not sure if I’m doing a good job of explaining what I saw, but when I saw him make the turn, I thought he was out of control and a danger to other drivers on the road.”

He was right — he wasn’t doing a very good job of describing what he’d seen.  Even though the picture in his mind was perfectly clear, neither the judge nor myself could ‘see’ what the officer had seen.  If I didn’t help him paint a clear picture, we were going to lose the motion, and we would lose the case.

That’s when I had a bright idea.

I took a magic marker out of my trial toolbox, walked over to the flipchart, and drew a quick sketch of the intersection the officer had been describing.

Hand drawn Intersection

“May the witness step down the witness stand, your Honor?”

Intrigued, the judge said, “Officer, you may step down.”

Taking a business card out of my wallet, I drew a large arrow on the back of my card and handed it to the officer.  “Officer, pretend that this is the defendant’s car, with the arrow pointing in his direction of travel.  Please show use exactly what you saw when the defendant made this ‘wide’ turn.”

In an instant, any doubts about the validity of the stop were removed.  Using a crude, hand-drawn exhibit, the officer was able to show everyone exactly what he’d seen and exactly why he’d stopped the defendant’s car.  My opponent tried to cross-examine the officer, but wasn’t able to cast any doubts on the officer’s version of events.  Thanks to poorly drawn artwork and a makeshift prop, we won the motion.

But if lousy artwork and a business card can save the day, just imagine what you can accomplish with a little time and effort.  Here’s a quick and easy to create inexpensive courtroom exhibits that will help your witnesses tell their stories and show the jury exactly what happened.

Start by printing a large (30″ x 40″ is a good starting size, bigger is probably better) image of your scene.  Maybe it’s an aerial photograph of the apartment complex, the layout of the emergency room, or a map showing the fatal roadway or intersection.

Intersection

EXAMPLE OF AN INTERSECTION AERIAL VIEW

After you’ve printed out your image, you’ll want to give it a magnetic backing. You can either purchase magnetic backing (it’s easy to find, just do a Google search for “Magnetic Adhesive Sheeting” and you’ll find tons of suppliers) or you can temprarily attach your image to a magnetic board, such as a magnetic dry erase board.

Once your image has a magnetic back, you can use small magnetic figures to “show” the jurors exactly where the collision took place, where the doctors and nurses were positioned, or where everyone was standing when the fight broke out.

For your “actors,” you’ve got two different options.  The first option is to print photos of the cars, the doctors’ faces, etc., attach magnetic backing to the photos, and then let your witnesses play.

Railroad model figurinesThe second option is to use 3-D figurines.  You might be tempted to use your old Star Wars figures (“I’ll use Luke Skywalker for my client, and the role of my opponent will be played by Darth Vader!”), but it’s probably better to check your local hobby shop or shop online for a wide variety of scale size replicas.  A quick search in the Google Images library will turn up hundreds of figures in all shapes and sizes.  You’ll find office workers, cars, outdoor workers, trucks, teenagers, travelers, police officers, animals, fire fighters, nudists…  Whatever you need, they’ve got it!  Attach a small magnet to the bottom of each figurine, and you’ve got an instant exhibit that will help your witnesses tell their story.

A quick note about scale: There are plenty of different sizes available.  Hobby shops will have sizes running from 1:220 (Z scale), to 1:87 (HO scale, the most popular model train size), all the way up to 1:12 (dollhouse size).  Don’t worry about matching the scale exactly — after all, this is a demonstrative exhibit, so the evidentiary requirements aren’t as strict.  Find one that’s big enough for your jurors to see, and then use a consistent scale for all of your elements.  You can’t use a “Z” scale train to represent your poor defenseless client, and then use a 1:12 scale monster to represent your opponent.  It might be fun, but the judge won’t permit it.

By using these quick and easy exhibits, you’ll make it easier for your witnesses to tell their stories.  Not everyone can adequately describe the images in their heads or put thoughts into words.  But if you give them some tools to help them tell their story, they can show you (and your decision maker), exactly what they saw.

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3 thoughts on “Quick and Easy Trial Graphics

  1. Aw come on…as soon as the Judge heard “wide turn” from the cop, the motion was in the bag. I like the idea of the article and have used similar tactics, just don’t BS us, OK?

  2. Elliott – I’m also a big believer in demonstrative exhibits. I have three comments. First, if you are going to do an unplanned or impromptu drawing such as the example you used to introduce this piece, I always try to be the drawer “so,the defendant was standing on the southwest corner? Right here? Okay, I’ll just draw a big “D” there” – helps avoid the teeny-weeny illegible diagram and allows for a recovery if the witness misspeaks. Second, I strenuously try to avoid unplanned diagramming through witness prep – if he is going to draw, I want to see it in my office first. Third, a nearly standard response to this type of diagram in my jurisdiction (New York)on cross is to try to use my witness’s diagram for cross and mark it up to the point of illegibility. I always jump in and object to opposing counsel tampering with the evidence introduced on my case and am usually supported by the trial judge.

    Also, don’t forget to photograph the diagram with all your action figures on it in their final position – the appellate court is going to want to see the exhibit as it was shown to the jury.

    As always, great article.

  3. Elliott, this article is terrific! It’s a succinct, pragmatic tutorial, complete with specifics — size of exhibit, magnetic backing, 2D or 3D figures, proper scale, etc. — on how to make witness testimony credible and memorable. One thing you might want to add is where to go for sources of the image that is the foundation of the exhibit — e.g., the intersection, the highway, etc. I have seen Google Earth images (intersections, highways, and neighborhoods) used by local prosecutors and defense counsel.

    Thanks for a great piece.