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Last year, Eugene E. Stearns sought to convince a federal court jury in Miami that ExxonMobil had breached its contract with his clients, 10,000 gas station operators around the country. His clients in the $1 billion class action suit alleged that the oil giant failed to give them a promised reduction on their wholesale gasoline price in exchange for their participation in a discount-for-cash program. Exxon insisted that it had provided the discount. The case, which started in 1991, already had produced a hung jury. Stearns’ challenge was to make the complex subject of how wholesale gas prices are set clearly understandable to the less educated jurors — several of whom hadn’t finished high school — without boring the jurors with advanced degrees. During his three-hour opening statement, Stearns used a laptop computer and special software to walk the jury step-by-step through his argument via a slickly produced slide show. The visuals appeared on a 10-foot-wide screen behind him. “You can’t stand in front of a jury and bore them for three hours talking any more,” says Stearns, president of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson in Miami. During the trial, Stearns used the big screen to present enlarged documents, blow up excerpts and emphasize points with charts and graphs. Stearns highlighted discrepancies between what a hostile witness said in pretrial deposition and the witness’ testimony in the courtroom by playing videotaped testimony of the witness. At other times, he enlarged “smoking gun” excerpts from documents until the words exploded in jurors’ faces like fireworks. During his closing argument, he showed the jurors, onscreen, how he wanted them to answer each question on the 12-page verdict form. It worked. Last February, the jury awarded Stearns’ clients, Allapattah Services et al., a $500 million verdict plus interest, which could push the total to $1 billion. ExxonMobil says it plans to appeal. While ExxonMobil’s attorney, Larry S. Stewart, a partner at Stewart Tilghman Fox & Bianchi in Miami, employed his own high-tech exhibits, Stearns believes his use of computerized exhibits won the jury over. He is so certain of the advantages of his digital arsenal that he hasn’t tried a case in four years without using computerized displays. “This is the future of litigation,” he says. Actually, that future is already here. Lin Walker, a technology specialist with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., says she’s seen dramatic growth in the use of high-tech litigation techniques since the late ’90s. Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the U.S. Courts Administrative Office in Washington, D.C., says there are already 125 federal courtrooms across the country, including one in West Palm Beach, Fla., that offer trial lawyers a wide array of electronic tools to help them present their cases. Winton Woods, who heads the University of Arizona law school’s Courtroom of the Future project in Phoenix, says trial lawyers who don’t master these new tools fast will be left in the dust. “If they don’t use electronic support, their opponents will — often to their clients’ shock and surprise,” he says. But the growing use of technology in the courtroom raises perplexing questions about the admissibility of simulated evidence and re-enactments, and whether lawyers are able to manipulate materials through technological means to mislead judges and juries. The technology also poses challenges for technophobic judges and attorneys, and for smaller law firms and solo practitioners without the resources of larger firms. On the other hand, inappropriate use of flashy computerized exhibits can hurt a lawyer’s case, cautions David Bruns, a project manager at Think Twice Inc., a courtroom graphics firm in San Francisco. The high-tech exhibits should never outshine the oratory, and all visual aids should match the themes and complexity of the argument. And if the client’s goal is to avoid giving the impression of deep pockets, then simple graphics may be preferable. Besides electronic exhibits in the courtroom, Woods predicts growing use of other technological advances in courts around the country in the near future, including: � Allowing attorneys to file suits and briefs electronically from their offices, with hyperlinks to cited cases. � Posting all documents in lawsuits online for easier viewing by both sides. � Phasing out court reporters, with video and audio recordings of the court proceedings on CD-ROM replacing written transcripts. � Holding “virtual” trials on Internet sites rather than in actual courtrooms, so that the judge, attorneys, witnesses and jurors can all participate from different locations. PLUG-AND-PLAY COURTROOMS Currently, trial lawyers who want to present high-tech exhibits generally must bring their own equipment. But that’s changing. About 50 local court jurisdictions across the country, including Orange Circuit Court in Orlando, Fla., have opened or are building courtrooms equipped with video evidence presentation systems, video conferencing, and electronic record-keeping, according to the National Center for State Courts. Courtroom 23, which sits atop the 9th Circuit Court building in Orlando, on the 23rd floor, is a good place to observe the state-of-the-art. Opened in mid-1999, it offers a wide range of electronic enhancements. The presentation system is located in a podium between the judge’s bench and the attorney’s tables. It contains a camera to read and display documents, photographs, X-rays, and other images. An attorney can place a photo or document before the camera, and everyone in the courtroom can see it on 20 monitors around the room. The podium also features a videocassette recorder to play videotapes; an illustrator tablet and light pen to enable the attorney or witness to highlight points on projected documents and images; a visual image printer to provide instant photo-quality prints of any image shown; a laptop connection for computer-generated exhibits; and touch-screen controls for easy operation. The courtroom has six mounted cameras to broadcast and record the proceedings, enabling the court to broadcast selected trials through its Internet site, www.ninja9.org. In 1999, the Orange Circuit Court became the first court in Florida to broadcast a trial live over the Internet. In addition, Courtroom 23 has video teleconferencing, which allows an attorney to interrogate a witness thousands of miles away. Courtroom 23 also offers digital, real-time court reporting, which permits an “instant replay” of the proceedings. It also allows the lawyers to take home each day’s testimony on a CD-ROM. Judges and attorneys who think a case would benefit from the use of the resources of Courtroom 23 can request it through the court clerk’s office. High-profile trials in Courtroom 23, like last year’s intellectual property suit alleging that Walt Disney Co. stole the concept for its new sports complex at Disney World, are broadcast on the Internet. Orange Circuit Judge Bob Wattles, who has presided over trials in Courtroom 23, says the huge, high-tech venue can be “a little disorienting” at first. But the advantages far outweigh any minor difficulties, he says. One big benefit is being able to display a document to everyone simultaneously. That alone can cut the length of a trial by 25 percent, he estimates. Courtrooms like this soon will be common. The Judicial Conference of the United States approved a plan in 1999 for every new or renovated federal courtroom to include these kinds of electronic enhancements. After the ExxonMobil verdict in his courtroom, U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold arranged for a demonstration of electronic evidence for his fellow judges. “[The ExxonMobil trial] was my first case where I’ve seen the technology used,” says Gold, who chairs the South Florida district’s technology committee. “There’s no question that its use can be extremely helpful in complicated cases with complex documents.” Gold says his district and the federal judicial administration in Washington, D.C., is making new technology a high priority. By the end of this year, he says, federal courts in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will have tech-ready courtrooms, and a second one will be built in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Not every judge will have it,” he says. “But they will have access to it. We are still working out how.” BRINGING YOUR OWN Until more electronic courtrooms are built, most attorneys have to bring their own high-tech arsenal to the courtroom. While most larger firms have their own in-house computer graphics experts to prepare computerized exhibits or else hire outside vendors, Stearns prefers to prepare his own presentations, with the help of tax lawyer and part-time courtroom technology specialist Antonio Menendez. Stearns urges his colleagues to do the same, in order to fully understand and control the presentation. Noting that he learned how to use computers only in the last few years, Stearns says: “If I can do it, anybody can.” Stearns Weaver isn’t the only firm making a major investment in high-tech trial aids. Steel Hector & Davis, a 200-lawyer firm in Miami, has built an entire cybercourtroom in its office — with high-tech presentation podiums, Internet access and monitors — to help its lawyers prepare for trial. Steel Hector has an in-house graphics team to help its attorneys develop video and PowerPoint presentations. SMALL FIRMS CAN COMPETE While using state-of-the-art technology in the courtroom seems expensive, Russell S. Adler, a partner at the two-attorney Karmin & Adler in Fort Lauderdale, says smaller firms can’t afford not to take the plunge. Adler contends that trying an important case with only poster board exhibits “is taking a chance on being blown out of the water” by an opponent’s high-tech presentation. Smaller law firms can compete effectively, he says. In the long run, he says, it’s cheaper to buy your own equipment and software rather than renting equipment or hiring a vendor. While costs vary, he estimates a lawyer can buy the basic equipment — laptop computer, scanner, digital projector, Microsoft PowerPoint software, a document manager like Summation or Concordance, and another piece of software that allows easy manipulation of documents on screen like TrialDirector, TrialPro or Sanction — for under $20,000. For lawyers who lack confidence or skills on computers, or who simply lack the time to create their own digital magic, there are always legal graphics vendors. Such companies include Trial Logix in Miami, Presentation Group in Jacksonville, Juris Corp. in Orlando, and Graphic Witness in Fort Lauderdale, all in Florida. Cal Deal, who owns and operates Graphic Witness, says his firm can produce an electronic exhibit for a routine civil case for $3,000 to $5,000. This might include color slides, animation, scene simulations and enlargements of documents and excerpts. A more complex case might require a larger exhibit of 150 to 200 slides, costing $15,000 to $20,000. Deal recently worked with a plaintiffs’ attorney who represented the family of a man killed in an auto accident in Palm Beach County, Fla. The man was thrown from the car when it crashed. The PowerPoint exhibit that Deal helped create traced the path of the other driver who, after the crash, ran from his wrecked car to discard beer bottles. The exhibit demonstrated that the driver ran right past the gravely injured man on the ground, without calling for medical help. The exhibit was so explosive, Deal says, that as soon as the defense viewed it at a pretrial hearing, the defendant settled the case. “For lawyers, it is no longer a question of ‘Should I use technology?’ ” Deal says, “ but of ‘How should I use it?’ “ Larry Stewart says that he came up with one of his most effective high-tech exhibits for a case in which he represented a college student who was seriously injured while riding his bike down a hill on a designated bike path. The student veered off the path at the bottom of the hill and crashed. Stewart’s argument was that designing the bike path with a sharp left turn at the bottom of a steep hill was negligent. Stewart had an expert calculate the speed of the bicyclist coming down that hill, and his centrifugal force going into the turn. He then created a computer animation presentation to show what would happen to the bike and rider under those conditions. Once the defense viewed the animated exhibit before the trial, defense counsel settled. But Stewart acknowledges that such animations may raise ethical and legal issues about the accuracy and authenticity of the evidence. For one thing, real-life participants in a litigated event probably had to react in an instant. Jurors watching a simulation over and over may hold the parties to an unrealistic standard of behavior, like TV sports viewers second-guessing an umpire’s call based on a slow-motion instant replay. Another issue is ensuring that attorneys don’t present as evidence digital photos and documents they’ve doctored to strengthen their cases, says Pedro Malavet, an assistant law professor who teaches the use of technology at the University of Florida law school. Judge Gold says, however, that the ethical and legal issues involved in the use of high-tech exhibits versus traditional ones are different, but not entirely new. A lawyer presenting a computerized simulation or recreation has to meet the same evidentiary standards as when he or she presents a standard photograph, and show that it is fair and accurate. “It’s not about the technology,” he says. “It’s about the evidence.” Even so, the University of Arizona’s Woods hedges his bets about the widespread use of advanced technology in the nation’s courtrooms in the near future. “A courtroom is a pretty conservative environment where tradition reigns,” he says. Major changes won’t take place, he predicts, as long as “the old guys are still at the top, running the show without computers.”

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