A new way of trying cases is emerging, as computers enable lawyers to bring persuasive visuals and entire law libraries to court.
By MICHAEL CANNING
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 1995
Tampa lawyer Scott Boardman had a seemingly difficult case.
His client, Noel Exinia, was on trial in January for murder after police said he tried to collect a debt from a reputed drug dealer in Bradenton. Exinia killed the man during a struggle, stabbing him multiple times, shooting him in the shoulder and head, and smashing him in the face with a statuette of the Virgin Mary.
All captured on audio tape during a police surveillance. What was the outcome of what some thought was an obvious decision for the jury?
The jury returned a verdict of "manslaughter without a firearm," Boardman said. "And he'll be out probably by the end of the year." Seems hard to believe, but then you weren't sitting on the jury, and you weren't subjected to a style of litigation that is transforming our legal system. Technology is enabling lawyers to do what editors have long told writers: show, don't tell. Boardman and his partner, Frank de la Grana, were able to use the state's strongest evidence against it. Using a computer program that synchronized the audio recording of the fatal struggle with sequenced storyboard drawings, they argued that Exinia acted in self-defense.
"With visuals like that in a courtroom," said Boardman, 29, "it has a tremendous impact. Especially when the other side doesn't have anything."
As effective as it was, the lawyers' storyboard display was relatively simple stuff. In a courtroom, laptop computers can put a virtual law library on counsel's table. Documents, evidence and computer animations can be digitized, displayed and superimposed on video display systems.
Lawyers are employing these tactics and more in the escalating battle to impress jurors.
"I think younger attorneys are much more receptive to those innovations than older ones," said Harvey Moore of Trial Practices Inc., a litigation consulting company in Tampa.
The 49-year-old Moore said lawyers in their 20s and early 30s have an advantage, being the first generation to grow up with computers.
"If you go into most major civil trials, for example, you'll see the gray-haired senior lawyer, male or female, addressing the jury," he said. "But you'll see sitting at counsel table a younger lawyer who is typing away at a laptop ... which is very different from a yellow legal pad that the older-generation lawyers are still scratching on,"
At Stetson law school in Gulfport, "students graduate knowing how to use Westlaw," said Boardman, referring to an on-line or CD-ROM access search and retrieval system. Anyone who has a laptop, and a phone link-up can access a database of every recorded case, plus statutes, precedents and opinions, fight in the middle of the trial.
Attorneys Michael Goetz, 28, and Marcio Valladares, 27, of Holland and Knight in Tampa, are big fans of laptops. "For the big cases," said Valladares, "we'll do that as a matter of routine. We'll take a laptop computer to the trial, and have access to Westlaw in case any legal issues come up."This way, lawyers can instantly challenge a motion with a previous ruling, without having to pore over law books.
"It puts us hours ahead of someone who would do this manually," added Goetz. To impeach, or discredit, witnesses, Valladares and Goe often rely on time-sequenced videotape, which instantly allows the court to review any contradictions in witnesses' testimony. The videotape can have a stronger impact on a jury or judge than a transcript might, the lawyers said. The same technology can be used for depositions taken during the discovery phase of the trial, said Goetz. "It can be a very effective impeachment tactic probably because we're so much into the TV generation. We are so willing to be influenced by things seen on a screen," he said.
For personal injury lawyer J. D. Dowell, re-creating an auto accident manually isn't even an option. Dowell, 32, of Medina, Pitisci and Dowell in Tampa, relies on computer animated re-creations of accidents to make his point in court.
Ifs a complex and expensive process. His firm must hire outside litigation-support companies to survey the accident scene, process the accident reports and produce the final re-creation.
For bigger cases, Dowell says the expensive re-creations are worth it. "It's like you can actually see the accident occur," he said. "And they can also take you inside, as if you were the driver in the accident, so it can really amplify some themes that you have in your case, Like (the accident) happened real quickly, or your guy never had a chance."
As with the proliferation of any technology, computer animation is becoming less expensive. "What would cost you $15,000, $20,000 five years ago, you can now get for a couple (of) thousand bucks," Dowell said.
The march of technology also inevitably makes things move faster. Could it be true? Will these innovations actually speed up trials? "Oh, for sure," Moore said.
If lawyers can call up documents and manipulate them on' a screen in front of a jury, you can present evidence much more effectively, Moore said.
Boardman, however, remained skeptical.
"Not if the 0'. J. Simpson trial is any indication," he said.