Court: State of the art equipment is being used in trials. Is it improving the system or giving an unfair advantage?


June 08, 1998|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

When the time came for James O'C. Gentry Jr. to convince a jury that three defendants had starved and beaten 9 - year - old Rita Fisher to death, the prosecutor marshaled the evidence on his laptop computer.

Then he unveiled a high - tech slide show that transformed the Baltimore County Circuit Court room into a theater of tragedy.

There was no escaping the image of Rita's emaciated, battered body as it flashed on the courtroom wall, larger than life. Or the image of her abused, waif - like sister, Georgia. Or the boxing gloves used to beat the girls, or the photo of the "hole" where they were jailed in their basement.

As Gentry addressed the court, his computer displayed a point - by - point rebuttal of the defendants' testimony, along with graphics that explained the law and a reiteration of the tales of abuse that Georgia had told the jury.

His closing argument ended with an image of a forlorn Rita, her eyes bruised, taken six months before her death. Under the photo, framed in an oval, were the words, "Born, May 23, 1988, Died June 25, 1997."

On the next day, April 28, the jurors returned second - degree murder and child abuse verdicts against Rita's mother, Mary E. Utley, her sister, Rose Mary Fisher, and Fisher's boyfriend, Frank E. Scarpola Jr.

It was the the veteran prosecutor's first brush with presentation software, long used as a tool of persuasion in the business world but just now making an impact in the courtroom.

Gentry's computer was loaded with Microsoft PowerPoint, a popular $300 program that allows users to create slide shows that combine text, photos, charts, animation and even music. He was delighted with the result.

"It was revealing to me how important it's going to be in trials. It will allow me to make more powerful presentations," Gentry said.

Long accustomed to passing evidence tediously from hand to hand, Gentry was impressed because the software allowed him to "show the photographs so the judge, the jury, the prosecution, the defense lawyers and all the defendants could see them all at one time."

The defense lawyers, caught off guard, had to follow Gentry's closing presentation with the traditional easels and poster board charts.

"I thought it was extremely effective. It played on the jury's emotions," said attorney Larry Polen, who objected unsuccessfully to Gentry's use of PowerPoint on the grounds that it was prejudicial to his client, Rose Mary Fisher.

Judge Dana M. Levitz, who presided over the case, said Gentry's closing argument "made great use of the technology that's available." Levitz said he has been advocating the use of technology for years to the University of Baltimore law students and trial lawyers he teaches.

The results were so impressive that the Baltimore County State's Attorney's office is training other staff members to use PowerPoint.

Similar technology is making its mark elsewhere.

For example, the staff of the new Anne Arundel County Court House is training lawyers to use a state - of - the - art presentation system that will be available to all.

In a high - profile national case, federal prosecutors in the Oklahoma City bombing trials in Denver used a high - speed image display system with a data bank called Viewpoint, allowing them to flash any one of 2,500 documents or photographs onto courtroom screens in seconds.

And at the University of Arizona College of Law, Professor Winton Woods directs the Courtroom of the Future, where he trains students to use the latest technology - including 'u PowerPoint. Although the popular program is relatively rare in courtrooms, Woods says, it has great potential because "it is designed to persuade and to sway."

Just as important, he says, the technology seems to excite the next generation of attorneys. "When my students finish my class they say, 'If I didn't get anything else out of this class, I learned how to use PowerPoint.' "

Gentry had heard of PowerPoint before the Rita Fisher murder trial but wasn't aware of its potential until he heard his sister, Ann Cunningham, talk about it at a family gathering on Easter Sunday.

Cunningham, a consultant who makes PowerPoint presentations to private industry, agreed to to tackle her brother's closing argument. While police photographer David Knorlein turned photos of Rita and Georgia into digital images, Gentry sketched out the presentation on sheets of yellow legal paper. Then he dropped them at his sister's house.

"I said, 'Here, you're the artist. Make it look good.' And I left," he recalled.

Unlike the presentations she develops for businesses, Cunningham's project for her brother did not use any sound or music.

"We didn't want to make it glitzy," she said.

But it was good enough to overpower the defense, according to Polen, who said his team's final arguments for defendants "looked slipshod in comparison."

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