‘Courtroom 2000′ in Riverhead, equipped with flat panel screens. (Rick Kopstein/ALM)
ALBANY – While nothing prevents the use of PowerPoint in summations to jurors during New York trials, the state Court of Appeals cautioned Tuesday that the same rules “governing the bounds of proper conduct” apply to the computer-aided presentations as to other statements and displays.
The court upheld the convictions of two defendants in separate rulings Tuesday in which the defense challenged as prejudicial the use of PowerPoint presentations by the prosecution.
“There is no inherent problem with the use of a PowerPoint presentation as a visual aid in connection with closing arguments,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote for the court, New York state’s highest. DiFiore stressed, however, that PowerPoint materials must be limited to characterizations of facts that are “within the four corners of the evidence.” They must not present materials that allow jurors to “draw conclusions which are not fairly inferable from the evidence,” she held.
“If counsel is going to superimpose commentary to images of trial exhibits, the annotations must, without question, accurately represent the trial evidence,” DiFiore wrote for the unanimous court in the first of two decisions addressing the use of PowerPoint in courtroom criminal proceedings issued Tuesday, People v. Williams, 28. “Moreover, any type of blatant appeal to the jury’s emotions or egregious proclamation of a defendant’s guilty would plainly be unacceptable.”
DiFiore said the rules for fair presentations to juries of closing materials enumerated by the Court of Appeals in the pre-PowerPoint year of 1976 in People v. Ashwal, 39 NY2d 106, guide acceptable PowerPoint demonstrations now.
In People v. Williams, Leonard Williams argued that labels attached by prosecutors to photographs of evidence were so inaccurate that the trial judge ordered the prosecution to cut short the PowerPoint demonstration.
DiFiore’s ruling in Williams and its pronouncements on acceptable PowerPoint use was joined by Judges Jenny Rivera, Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Leslie Stein, Eugene Fahey, Michael Garcia and Rowan Wilson.
In the other case, People v. Anderson, 29, defendant Trevor Anderson contended that labels on PowerPoint photographs of evidence against him and of a timeline of the crime were prejudicially inaccurate.
The court split 5-2 in People v. Anderson, with Abdus-Salaam writing a majority ruling in which DiFiore, Stein, Garcia and Wilson joined.
In a lengthy dissent in Anderson, Rivera wrote of the markedly more dramatic way that images can impress themselves on the human brain than the spoken word. She said that scientific fact makes it all the more important for courts to make sure that PowerPoint images provide information that is supported by materials in evidence.
Images or information must not be edited for use in PowerPoint that goes beyond what the evidence shows, Rivera wrote.
The court’s rulings Tuesday expanded on the court’s ruling in its only other previous examination of the fairness of a PowerPoint demonstration at a criminal trial, in the People v. Santiago, 22 NY3d 740 (2014).
In Santiago, the court said it did not prejudice a defendant when jurors were shown a PowerPoint display of a post-mortem photograph of a 21-month-old girl which faded out after six minutes, the time prosecutors said it took the defendant to asphyxiate the youngster (NYLJ, Feb. 26, 2014).
“The prosecutor exceeded the scope of proper summation by including in his PowerPoint presentation edited slides featuring defendant’s arrest photo and hospital records that misrepresented the evidence, misled the jury and appeal to emotion,” Rivera wrote in Anderson in a dissent in which Fahey joined.
A. Alexander Donn of Appellate Advocates represented both Anderson and Williams. Donn declined to comment Tuesday.
Brooklyn Assistant District Attorneys Jean Joyce and Terrence Heller represented the prosecution in the Williams and Anderson cases, respectively.
There was no immediate comment Tuesday from the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Anderson, 34, is serving a 20-year sentence in state prison for attempted murder and weapons possession.
Williams, 36, is serving 17 years for burglary, assault and weapons possession.
Rivera wrote three years ago that ever-improving technology can be used unfairly to dramatize the presentation of inaccurate information or inflammatory images as well as to help jurors understand materials better. She said the six-minute fade-out of the 21-month-old slaying victim in the PowerPoint display by prosecutors in Dutchess County was prejudicial to the defendant.