You have worked for months or years gathering evidence, documenting witness statements and processing discovery requests in preparation for one thing — the trial. One of the keys to ensuring that the trial goes smoothly from your side of the courtroom is the preparation of trial exhibits. When an attorney is well organized and efficient, he appears more credible to the jury.
For large cases, there could be hundreds of exhibits consisting of thousands of pages of documents that must be organized in an effective and precise system to ensure that each exhibit is easy to find when the attorney needs it. Nothing will disrupt the flow of a case like an attorney who fumbles to locate the evidence he wishes to present as evidence. He loses the attention of the jury as he tries to locate the evidence and it may be difficult to regain the same momentum he had prior to stalling.
What Are The Best Practices For Preparing Exhibits For Trial?
Exhibits include documents, photographs, physical objects, emails, text messages, audio tapes and videos. Not all documents presented as evidence will be marked as an exhibit. Only those items that the court deems as relevant will be marked as evidence and placed into evidence. However, as the paralegal, it is your job to have all potential evidence organized and ready to produce should the attorney decide he wants to use it as evidence at the trial.
Organize and Copy Exhibits
This is the first step in preparing exhibits for trial. You should place “Exhibit” stickers on each exhibit so that the court reporter does not need to take time to do this at trial. Create a master index of each exhibit including the author/source, date, type and short description to identify the exhibit.
You should have a minimum of three copies of each exhibit. The original exhibit will be offered into evidence so you will need a copy for your attorney and a copy for each member of the opposing counsel. Attach copies of the exhibit to the original so that you can quickly distribute the copies when the exhibit is accepted into evidence.
You may have to print some electronic documents to introduce them as exhibits at trial. Some attorneys may object, claiming they have no way of refuting the document’s authenticity arguing that it could have been changed prior to printing…so ensure your side is prepared to produce the original electronic copy. Also remember that prating an electronic document is no different than making a copy of a paper document. (Copies can also be altered.) Although the opposing side may object, a printed copy of an electronic document generally does not get far if you are prepared.
Additionally, printing may not be necessary. Most courts have recognized the necessity of submitting and viewing electronic exhibits at trial. These courts have adopted procedures for accepting electronic exhibits provided that the exhibit confirms to the allowable file type set forth by the court. Since the rules for electronic exhibits vary by jurisdiction, paralegals should read the local rules and contact the clerk’s office for specific information about electronic exhibits. By taking the initiative to learn about electronic exhibits in his or her jurisdiction, the paralegal avoids emergency situations and problems when this matter comes up in a future case.
Use Initials to Identify the Author or Source
If you are utilizing Bates Stamping as a way to track exhibits, consider adding initials before the number to identify the witness, party or source of the exhibit. It is an efficient and quick way to remind the attorney of the source of each piece of evidence.
Develop Cheat Sheets
Cheat sheets can be invaluable at a trial when handling thousands of documents or other pieces of evidence. List on a separate sheet of paper each of the issues that the attorney will be addressing at the trial, each element he will need to prove and each argument that the attorney will make as part of his strategy.
Analyze your master index to determine which piece of evidence will be introduced to support the attorney’s argument or to prove each element and write the exhibit number on the appropriate cheat sheet. These cheat sheets should never replace your master index; however, at trial, you can quickly pull each exhibit as the attorney moves from point to point so that you anticipate what he will need rather than waiting for him to ask for a specific exhibit.
You should have a sealed original master copy of each deposition to enter into evidence as well as several copies of the deposition with specific pages tagged. Make sure that the master copy has been conformed to include any corrections that were made after the deposition was verified. Prepare deposition summaries for the attorney to review in preparation for the trial.
Handling Oversized Exhibits
If you have oversized exhibits, copy and mount the exhibits well in advance of the trial. If the exhibit is an exact copy of a smaller version, one or both may be marked as an exhibit at the trial. If the exhibit is an extract, highlight the portion of the original document that has been enlarged so that the original may be submitted to the court while the larger version is used as an illustration for the jury.
Practice positioning large charts or exhibits in the courtroom prior to the trial in order to determine the best position for the judge and jury to view the exhibit. Again, this will prevent disrupting the flow of the trial and avoid appearing unorganized.
Prepare for the Use of Videotapes
You will probably have already edited and copied the videotapes or DVDs to produce to opposing counsel. Arrange for a typed transcription of each exhibit so that you can note the sections of the tape that you want to enter into evidence. Contact the court to determine the steps for having video equipment in the courtroom.
The Day of the Trial
Even with the best preparation, your attorney will likely ask you for an exhibit at the spur of the moment. Do not panic and do not look at your attorney as if you have no idea where the exhibit is in your stack.
The best way to ensure that you do not have a problem at trial is to know your exhibits. Review the exhibits several times as you prepare for trial. Review your master index and your cheat sheets in order to be as familiar with the exhibits as possible. Make sure each exhibit is properly marked and you organize the exhibits in a manner that makes sense to you. If your exhibits are organized and you are familiar with the exhibits, you will be able to find anything your attorney needs quickly and efficiently.