Presentation Hardware for the Courtroom

By Todd H. Flaming

At a modern trial or significant hearing, a lawyer may choose to present evidence and even arguments electronically. Usually, this means the lawyer uses a computer connected to a projector or monitor to display the evidence and arguments to a judge and jury. The lawyer can hire an outside service to do this or the lawyer can choose to do it him- or herself.

As a litigator who handles patent and other intellectual property cases, I find that electronic presentation software and hardware is essential to my practice. Patent cases usually include what’s known as a Markman hearing, in which we argue over the meaning of terms in the patent. Often, we display illustrations or animations during the presentation to assist the judge. For jury trials, animations and video can be particularly helpful to the jury.

Most cases—not just those in the field of intellectual property law—can benefit from the use of electronic presentation. Below is an overview of the hardware you need to handle an electronic trial presentation.

What Is Electronic Presentation?
Evidence in the trial of yesteryear was shown to the jury through traditional media. Lawyers published documents to the jury by passing around copies, providing jury binders, or by using transparencies projected on a screen. They exhibited demonstrative evidence, such as diagrams and chronologies, on poster board. They introduced deposition testimony by playing a videotape or reading from the transcript.

Today, lawyers present evidence using a computer. The lawyer has all exhibits, transcripts, and video loaded into a computer program dedicated to displaying them for trial. Someone sits at the table and runs the computer, which is connected to the display devices—projector, computer monitors, etc. The person running the computer can display documents, designated deposition testimony, and even demonstrative exhibits. Computers even allow lawyers to create demonstrative animations. Each of these pieces of evidence can reach the judge or jury through a computer.

For example, suppose the lawyer is cross-examining a witness. The lawyer hands the witness a document, such as a letter the witness wrote. The lawyer lays a foundation for the document, has it admitted, and instructs the person running the computer to display the document for the jury to see. The document appears on the screen, very large and easy to read. The software displaying the document allows the lawyer to blow up sections of it, highlight lines on it, or even make some notations.

Or a lawyer might display portions of a deposition using the trial software. The software can project and play the deposition video and audio while the transcription of the witness’s testimony scrolls up the screen in synchronization with the recording. Trial software even allows the document the witness is testifying about to be shown next to the video.

Or the lawyer might display animation illustrating how an apparatus works. Usually, a third-party animator creates the animation, which plays like an ordinary video.

Sometimes a court will have a printer to allow printouts of what was shown, allowing the court to include the screen-shot printouts in evidence.

Preparing for Trial or a Hearing
Before you get to trial or a hearing, you must prepare your electronic presentation. That means preparing any slides and turning any evidence you may use into digital images, clipping video, and generating any demonstrative evidence in a format that the computer can display. This is handled through software. (For a discussion of the software needed, see the article Presentation Software for Solos and Small Firms” .

The hardware you will need at this stage includes a computer for preparing the exhibits and a scanner to turn paper into digital images.

Pretrial computer. You might as well use an existing computer for this. However, a computer dedicated to this task—independent of the other computers in your office—will make your work easier and avoid problems. If you dedicate a computer to this role, buy yourself a decent monitor. Try for a 23-inch monitor or larger. When you are done, you and your colleagues can fight over who gets to keep it. (If you’re a solo, it’s all yours.)

Scanner. There are three main types of scanners to convert your documents and evidence into digital files: flatbed scanners, dedicated scanners with document feeders, and combined copier/scanners. A flatbed scanner is one that has a plate of glass and a lid. It scans one page at a time. If you have more than a few pages to scan, you’ll want a better option. A scanner with a document feeder is more useful. A higher-end option is a copier/scanner, which is in effect a scanner combined with a printer. Most photocopiers sold to offices these days are really copier/scanners, so if you’re considering buying a scanner, make sure you don’t already have one.

Your scanner should be hooked up to the pretrial computer, either directly or through the firm’s network. If you plan to do a great deal of scanning, connect directly and move the machines to a dedicated workroom (space permitting). As you scan your documents and evidence pretrial, the resulting digital files can be put into the database/software on the trial computer (more on that computer below). If you plan to include PowerPoint presentations, you can create them on the pretrial computer and then copy them to the trial computer, or you can create them directly on the trial computer.

Presenting at Trial
Before trial, you should raise electronic presentation issues with the judge. You should also coordinate with opposing counsel. If there is no ready-made setup and if the judge imposes no particular requirements, you may opt to handle the electronics yourself. If your electronic presentation is complicated or if you are not comfortable running the hardware while simultaneously running your case, hire a professional to do it for you.

Trial computer, monitors, and projectors. A trial computer should be powerful and free of any software other than what is needed for trial. You want a computer that has a fast processor, a lot of RAM (memory), and a fast hard drive. Standards change over time, and software adapts to it. But it is not hard to figure out what you need. Search the Internet or consult with a computer salesperson you trust. If you find you’re trying to save money by buying the middle-of-the-road machine, think again.

You might opt for a laptop. Many people use them. For a while I would not have recommended a laptop. But these days laptops are reliable and powerful, so I no longer recommend against them.

As for your display, there are many options. The simplest is to get a projector to display on a screen. Consider the dimensions of the courtroom and how much light the courtroom gets. You will need a bright projector. Projector brightness is measured in lumens. At least 3,000 lumens is usually considered adequate for a courtroom with the lights on. If the courtroom has windows and gets sunlight, you should test a projector to find out how much you need.

You will want a backup projector. Otherwise, if your projector dies at trial, you’re shut down and out of luck.

Also get a screen. They are the kind you had in high school civics class. You also can buy fancier ones, such as rear-projection screens, but make sure you have the space to set up whatever you choose to use.

The projector works as follows: You plug the projector into your trial computer as you would a computer monitor, aim the projector at the screen, and display out to the screen. Most laptops have a button or a combination of buttons that toggles between laptop display, VGA-out display (i.e., your projector), and simultaneous laptop and VGA-out displays. The VGA-out port is a little socket into which you insert the plug on the cord from a projector. It is shaped like a trapezoid, and it is almost certainly on the back of your computer. Test your display before you get to court, not only to make sure it works, but also to practice toggling between displays. Computers are notoriously finicky about this particular function.

A more complicated setup is one in which you display to multiple devices set up in the courtroom. For example, some courtrooms have a monitor for the judge, monitor for both counsel tables, monitor for the jury, and monitor for the courtroom staff. At each counsel’s table is a cord with a plug to be inserted into the VGA port of a computer. The courtroom staff—clerk or deputy—may control the devices. Check with the judge’s staff ahead of time to find out.

Some courtrooms are equipped with a touch screen through which you can see what is on the screen and on which you can make notations that will be superimposed over the screen image. For example, you could circle or highlight a key paragraph. This is a fantastic tool, assuming it is available.

Other display devices. Another display device that is less commonly used these days is a document camera—a camera positioned over a flat bed. Whatever is placed on the bed is projected onto a screen. Document cameras can be useful devices for showing evidence if it all is on paper. You can also make notes on the paper, which can help a judge and jury see your point.

The overhead projector is a mostly outdated device. Many years ago we used them by preparing transparencies of every piece of paper—each page of every exhibit. A computer is a much better device.

Input devices. A computer needs input devices—keyboard and mouse, for example—to know what you want it to do.

At trial, one device you may run into is a barcode scanner, similar to those at the supermarket checkout counter. Some software can create barcode stickers for each exhibit. You paste the sticker on your exhibit list next to the exhibit reference, blast it with the scanner, and see the exhibit pop up on the screen.

I am not a fan of these. They are hard to trigger, and they are bulky. Besides, all the scanner does is identify an exhibit and send a number. The person running the computer (possibly you) should already be familiar with all your exhibits and can type the number into the computer manually. Still, if you want a little more control, consider purchasing one. The trial software companies will recommend good ones.

Also, in preparing for trial, think of the ways a courtroom is different from your office. In both places you will most likely do a great deal of typing, but in a courtroom there is a judge and jury to become annoyed by the sound of your tapping away. Get a keyboard that is designed not to make noise.

Similarly, consider what kind of mouse you will use. Some have noisy buttons, and I have even had a mouse that squeaked—it must have been confused as to what type of mouse it was. Test your mouse and make sure it is quiet. Laptops sometimes have track pads, and those are ideal for a courtroom setting.

Don’t forget a mouse pad.

Laser pointer. If you are a big nerd, get a laser pointer to point to something on the screen. I use them when not in court. I have never used one in court. If you do decide to use one, use it sparingly. A trial is not Star Wars.

Connections, wiring, and power. All of the devices you use must be connected together. Here’s where you need a little coordination.

First, it would be ridiculous for each side to bring its own projector and screen, even if allowed. Get together with opposing counsel and coordinate on this. If you can’t, then take it to the judge.

Second, you will need a way to switch the display between what you project and what the other side does. The simplest device for this is a switch box. You will need one that has inputs and outputs for both video and audio. Don’t forget that in addition to a face, you want a voice behind your on-screen witness.

Third, if you have more than one device that will display what comes out of your computer, you will need an amplifier. You can find amplifiers that take one video input and send it out to multiple video outputs. So you can send video from your computer to multiple monitors (judge, jury, counsel) and a projector for a screen.

Fourth, the judge or someone else may want a kill switch. You could set it up so that what is displayed to the judge and counsel and what goes to the jury are on different lines. Only what the judge approves gets to the jury, and the judge has the power of the switch—literally—to allow/disable the signal from getting past the bench.

Fifth, a courtroom full of wires is a recipe for more lawsuits. Wires should be taped down, bunched together to avoid getting snagged, and ideally not seen.

Finally, all of this takes power. Do not assume there are ample plugs. Most courtrooms were not designed for the kind of electronic presentations lawyers make these days. You may need a way to distribute power from a remote plug.

See the figure below for a sample layout of presentation hardware. In this relatively simple setup, there is no control from the lectern. Also, there is no projector. The jury has a big monitor, but the judge has the option to cut off the display by use of a kill switch.

Parting Thoughts
Your electronic presentation will present challenges you won’t anticipate. I recommend a trial run with a complete setup to see how everything works. Do a mock opening, a mock direct, and a mock cross, at a minimum. For the cross, include video-clip impeachment.

Keep in mind that new technologies have their advantages, but they also have their pitfalls. So perhaps an electronic trial presentation is not the best one for your needs. If it is, plan well in advance.




  • Todd H. Flaming is a litigator who handles patent and other intellectual property cases with Schopf & Weiss LLP in Chicago, Illinois; he may be reached at

Copyright 2010

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