“How well do you use your tools?” asked Hon. Wendy Beetlestone, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, of the attendees at the Federal Courts Committee meeting on “Technology in the Courtroom” on Dec. 19. Judge Beetlestone, the chair of the Technology Committee for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, was joined by courtroom technology specialist William Jones and Catherine Henry, senior litigator with the Federal Community Defender Office. The panelists provided insight into the court’s electronic courtrooms and the arsenal of tools available to litigators putting on a case in the Eastern District.
Preparation is key to making the most of the technology available at the James A. Byrne Courthouse. Over a dozen courtrooms are fully equipped with evidence presentation stations, video and audio conferencing, document cameras, video monitors, assisted listening and touch screen annotation capabilities. Attorneys just need to request an electronic courtroom in advance and review the assigned judge’s protocol for electronic evidence presentation.
Prior to a scheduled appearance in court, counsel should prepare all exhibits on a flash drive. As the exhibits are published during the course of trial, they will be displayed on the screens throughout these electronic courtrooms. Per usual, the judge has the final say and can determine which evidence is published to the jury.
A hot topic among the audience was the ability of jurors to access all admitted evidence during deliberations with the software JEEP – Jury Evidence Electronic Presenter. With the JEEP program, jurors are provided with a laptop loaded with all admitted evidence and a large flat screen monitor. With full access to all admitted evidence, the panelists encouraged counsel to be forward thinking about particularly inflammatory evidence and the use of motions in limine. Knowing that jurors can parse over provisions in a document or play a critical video repeatedly should factor into trial strategy.
Another new feature changing the game on how attorneys present their cases is touch screen annotation. This feature allows counsel and witnesses to make annotations on exhibits or videos being displayed in the courtroom. These annotations are published to the jury in real time and allow counsel to direct jurors’ attention to certain details. These annotated versions of evidence can be saved for use during closing arguments or appellate proceedings. Panelists warned about keeping jurors’ attention as it can be easy for jurors to fixate on the screen, especially in the two courtrooms that provide each juror with a tablet for evidence viewing.
Attendees were provided with a few practical takeaways. When possible, have counsel make annotations on evidence as directed by a witness. This prevents the witness from making additional markings and allows counsel to make methodical annotations. Do not forget about your record for an appeal. Rename and save annotated versions of exhibits for use on appeal. For PowerPoint presentations, use blank screens in between speaking points to allow the jurors’ focus to shift throughout opening statements and closing arguments.
The court provides free training and welcomes attorneys to bring their laptops to determine compatibility with the court’s electronic systems. Training is available for counsel and their staff at least three days prior to the start of court proceedings. As new technology capabilities emerge, it is important for litigators to stay ahead of the curve and make the most of the available tools.
Alisha Rodriguez is an Associate at Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey