National Edition

Nationally Recognized

Exhibit A: Trial by Fire

Michigan Firm courts success with litigation graphics

By Mark Smith, Midwest Editor

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 illustrations.

 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 Center.

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 objections.

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 motion."

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."