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Illustration created by Grand Rapids, MI's
Visual Evidence Center shows the role of digital graphics in the courtroom.
Exhibit A: Trial by Fire
Michigan Firm courts success with litigation
By Mark Smith, Midwest
|Driving around trying to find a Yugo automobile typically isn't in the job
description of a graphic arts professional, but it's just another day in the life of the
imaging specialists at the Visual Evidence Center, Inc. in Grand Rapids, MI. The firm
specializes in providing demonstrative evidence consultation, electronic imaging services
to the legal industry. It works with clients during every phase, from discovery through
mediation, settlement, or on to trial.
The Yugo hunt arose out of Visual Evidence's
involvement in a negligence trial related to an accident on the Mackinaw Bridge between
Upper and Lower Michigan, says O. Nick Unger, one of the founders of the firm and the
photo-video Evidence Gatherer. The car fell 175 feet off the bridge after getting into
trouble on an unpainted median strip between the north and southbound lanes, he explains.
The company needed to track down a similar vehicle to gather data for an animated event
sequence reconstruction of the accident it was hired to produce.
"We couldn't find a Yugo because the dealers were not around anymore," Unger
explains. "Then, I was driving and happened to see a Yugo parked by the road while on
vacation in Tennessee. I stopped to take photographs; I ended up paying the owner to stick
around so I could take some measurements too. You must have graphic ability to be in this
business, but you also need investigation skills (Mr. Unger is a retired fire
investigator) to ask the right questions."
"A lot of leg work has to be done before you start working on the computer,"
adds John Walker, senior technical illustrator with Visual Evidence.
Visual Evidence was founded in 1986 as the Quick Response Team, a photo-video evidence
gathering service by five people who had worked together at one time or another shooting
broadcast TV news. The group also did work for corporate clients, who had them doing work
for their attorneys. Those attorneys started asking for 3-D scale models and medical
| During the past 12 years, the organization has developed into a
marketing co-op that now includes 30 members. All of the firm's associates have their own
businesses; they provide services to the legal community through the Visual Evidence
Unger explains, "We all live and work within Michigan, but because of our
award winning web site (Chief Information Officer Magazine 1998 Top 50), our group has
done work for attorneys throughout the Midwest, as well as California and the East Coast.
We use password-protected areas to conduct online exhibit reviews with clients and their
expert witnesses. The Internet erases the miles between all parties involved."
Unger says there was no course in litigation graphics when the company was started
(Unger has an MS in Electronic Journalism), so the staff learned what can be admitted at
trial as evidence initially from its clients, talking with judges, and going through trial
preparations. VEC is an aggressive user of digital technology in all forms, but its
guiding principle is to "keep it simple." That's because unnecessary details can
distract people from the central message and potentially give the opposition more bases
For example, in the case of the Yugo accident, the question was raised about showing
the driver's frightened face painted into the rearview mirror, Unger says. "I said,
'Not if you want to get it admitted by the judge. It's inflammatory and we can't prove she
did that.' If we are doing the inside of a vehicle, we don't faithfully reproduce the
entire dashboard if there is no reason to do so. Unless there is a reason to show a gauge,
we don't put it in. The same is true of the peripheral topography, such as trees and
buildings, unless sight issues are part of the case."
|"The goal is to make the message as understandable as
possible," adds Walker. "If it is pertinent to the case, we put in fine details.
If it isn't, we use simpler design. I strive to avoid 'Hollywood' effects in animations
and keep my graphics clean. That creates a clearer message, and takes less time to create
so it also saves our clients money. Sometimes we even do key framing, in which we only
show key points as an animated storyboard, dissolving between them rather than doing full
Visual Evidence currently produces a fifty-fifty mix of posters and other
print materials vs. computer based electronic-only presentations. But Unger says the mix
is swinging more toward digital. Printed pieces can be anything from an 8.5 x 11-inch
demand or settlement brochure to 40x60-inch posters in color or black and white, that are
computer artwork outputted on inkjet printers or simply documents enlarged on a
large-format copier. For many attorneys, PowerPoint and similar programs provide a
cohesive vehicle to present discovery documents, medical-technical illustrations and
MPEG-video along with basic text slides for opening and closing arguments. These
presentations are written to removable media or CD-ROM. VEC has developed PowerBar, which
lets users control a PowerPoint presentation via a barcode wand and printed control sheet
rather than with a mouse and menus.
Which of these exhibit options are used in a given case depends on what the lawyer is
comfortable with, what his expert witnesses demand, what the judge will admit into
evidence, and what the jury tends to expect, Unger says. The answer varies greatly.
Once a judge told attorneys that because $68million had been spent on a new court house
whose jury boxes were wired with a TV monitor for each juror, he wanted to see few if any
paper exhibits being used.
Lawyers typically have a personal style, Unger says. "We have an client who loves
to work with poster boards and likes to point to them with a laser arrow. Other lawyers,
especially the younger ones, like to use computers in the courtroom."
It's crucial to keep the ultimate audience in mind, Unger says. "The face of the jury
pool has changed. People today are used to getting their information visually; they're
more accustomed to digital technology. But that can work against you. In some rural
communities, city-based lawyers made their presentations too slick for those jurors'
tastes, and their credibility and their case suffered."
With media reports of
clogged courts, long delays in court dates, and seemingly endless trials, many times,
litigation graphics are produced under tight schedules. Unger says it is not uncommon for
lawyers to contact him on Friday or even Saturday to get materials started that are needed
on Monday or Tuesday for depositions or court.
Walker says a background in graphic design and technical illustration are required to
do the work, but it's also important to have a mindset that is more technical or
scientific than artistic. "The graphics, though, are based on knowledge about the
case provided by the attorney or his expert witness. We rely on our exhibit specialists to
translate their testimony, their side of the story, into graphics," he explains.
Visual Evidence's imaging specialists typically work from measurements, photographs,
testimony, video or digital still frames and more.
VEC often conducts mock trials or focus groups to evaluate the effectiveness of a
client's evidence presentation, including the graphics it produces. Attorneys get
same-day, printed or videotaped results, using VEC interactive computer software, which
records the responses of jurors using handheld meters.
"We have to be very careful that what we are producing meets the scientific
criteria of the case," says Walker. "It's usually up to the client's expert to
attest that what is presented is a fair and accurate representation of his or her opinion.
We just help them get their message across."