A new way to persuade

A former prosecutor's high-tech presentation, developed during a high-profile case, makes its way into civil court


Baltimore County prosecutor James O'C. Gentry Jr. had photographs, medical records and three weeks of trial testimony about a 9-year-old girl who was starved and beaten to death, but no idea how to pull it all together into a compelling closing argument for jurors.

He found the answer from an unexpected source: his sister, who worked at the time as a consultant making PowerPoint presentations to private companies.

Gentry's cutting-edge closing argument in the 1998 Rita Fisher murder trial launched his interest - and then expertise - in using the computerized slideshow software to enhance his courtroom presentations.

Now, after years of traveling across the country to teach other lawyers how to use the technology, Gentry has joined a high-profile plaintiffs' trial firm in Baltimore to do for them what he has done for county prosecutors: create compelling, computerized presentations that jurors will find persuasive.

"He's really the master. He puts those programs together better than anybody I've ever seen," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz, who presided over the Fisher case and allowed Gentry to use the PowerPoint presentation over defense objections.

Adding that he has seen few civil or criminal defense attorneys use the computerized slideshows now routinely employed by prosecutors, the judge said, "In the firm he's going with, he'll be, well, it's almost going to be sad for the other side. It's hard to overcome that stuff in his presentations."

Gentry, 55, a Waverly native and former county police officer, is known around the courthouse as a dapper dresser and a smart, if somewhat dry, trial attorney. He left the Baltimore County state's attorney's office in June after 22 years as a prosecutor and after briefly contemplating a run for office in this year's election to replace his boss, Sandra A. O'Connor, who is retiring after eight terms.

He started his new job last month at Salsbury Clements Bekman Marder & Adkins, a small firm that specializes in catastrophic injury, medical malpractice and wrongful-death cases. They represented victims of the 1987 Amtrak crash in Chase, which killed 16 people, as well as the families of several people who died in 2004 when a water taxi sank in Baltimore's harbor.

Paul D. Bekman, the firm's managing partner, said he expects Gentry to help transform the "one-dimensional" evidence that tends to dominate civil cases - medical records, correspondence and anatomical drawings - into the kinds of three-dimensional presentations that jurors have grown accustomed to seeing on television and at the movies.

"That's what Jim does," he said. "He's converted that to the trial setting so that it's more interesting, more visual. And if you look at the statistics, they will tell you that juries tend to remember about 75 percent of what they see but only about 25 percent of what they hear."

Gentry first pulled facts together in visual form for the case against Mary E. Utley, Rose Mary Fisher and Frank E. Scarpola Jr., in the death of Rita Fisher. According to a 1998 Sun article, Gentry's closing argument included a display of images - the girl's emaciated body; Rita's abused sister; a photograph of the basement where the two were kept - to prove that Rita died from abuse and neglect.

After winning second-degree murder and child abuse convictions against Rita Fisher's mother, sister and sister's boyfriend, Gentry decided to learn PowerPoint on his own.

"It started to be a hobby for me," he said. "And then, I got a little bit obsessed."

Nearly 10 years later, national legal experts say it's no surprise that technology has found its way into the staid environment of the courtroom.

"What we're seeing all over the country - and this affects criminal law, civil law, everything - is kids coming out of law school who grew up with computers," said Winton Woods, a professor and director of the Courtroom of the Future/Law Office of the Future project at the University of Arizona's law school.

"They use cell phones, they use computers, they use their iPods. They're really very, very tech-savvy, ... and they don't view that stuff as just recreation," he said. "It makes no sense at all to think that when they go into a courtroom, they'd want to do it the way it was done in 1850."

Indeed, the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., built a state-of-the-art courtroom, where judges and other court staff are trained in using technology.

Many federal courthouses across the country have been updated to enable lawyers to display documents and other evidence on television monitors in the jury box and around the courtroom.

And law professors and instructors who teach professional development classes for practicing attorneys have incorporated technology into assignments.

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