What visual aids should I make to bring to a jury trial, and how?
September 27, 2015 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I am going to have a day in court. There is an amount of relatively simple 2-dimensional data central to my case, that tracks the course two variable quantities over 9 years. I want the jury members to understand this data as easily and as well as can be. I'm guessing a few colored charts with x=time and y=the quantities would be a good way to accomplish this. But what exactly should I prepare to a accomplish this, in terms of size and layout? And what free software tools should I use to do it?

What: The granularity of the data is by calendar days, but the quantities it tracks mostly change only every several months or so. The big picture of the trend over the years is what is important. I have a prototypical image in my head of a large poster-like paper graph that would be presented on an easel, like in a New Yorker cartoon. However, in my data the x=time dimension is much 'longer' than the y dimension is 'high', so my poster would be long and narrow like a snake, which might be clumsy looking, or a hindrance to easy comprehension. It has also occurred to me that perhaps visual aids are typically delivered in the modern courtroom by direct projection from a laptop, for which the long snake-like form would be even more problematic.

How: I have never had the occasion to make any sort of visual graph like this for presentation. What very intuitive software should I use? My own PC runs Linux, so software that works on Linux or that is all done in a browser would be the most welcome. Would a graph-generating program that produces the visual graph from pure numbers compare favorably for ease of use to a drawing program where I design the visual graph myself?

YNML. I'll be represented by a public defender to whom I unfortunately seem to have limited access before the day the trial begins.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I have no experience presenting such evidence in court, but this sort of graph is easily generated in Excel (spreadsheet).

However, in my data the x=time dimension is much 'longer' than the y dimension is 'high', so my poster would be long and narrow like a snake,

There's no reason this has to be true.
posted by jon1270 at 6:10 AM on September 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


You can adjust the scale of the axes to whatever you want, including making your data look more favorable to you. Not that you should.

Do you have Excel? It might be possible to save an Excel chart as a vector graphic (.svg), which would blow up nicely.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:18 AM on September 27, 2015


[guys, excel is not available on linux. it says linux rght there in the question.]

the equivalent of excel for linux would be oocalc from openoffice (edit: or libreoffice as mentioned below).
posted by andrewcooke at 6:24 AM on September 27, 2015


LibreOffice Calc can make charts, and scale them any way you like.
posted by flabdablet at 6:25 AM on September 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a reason newspapers, universities, governments, and other companies hire graphic designers and other communications professionals, and it's because there's a lot of skill involved in making information easily accessible and understandable to a general audience. If you're putting the effort to go to court, this isn't something that should be half-assed, especially since a disingenuous plaintiff could manipulate the jury about what those figures mean. So I'd recommend you work with somebody who's familiar with making presentations and talk through exactly what you want to show (have 'em sign a nondisclosure agreement, though).

Slides you might consider are things like:
-a general plot of all the variables over the whole time
-zoomed-in plots of of particular areas of interest
-comparison of a smaller set of variables or data points

You wouldn't need to hire anybody fancy, maybe just a business school student who's probably also given a lot of thought to how to present data visually in powerpoint slides or whatever. I'd say it'd take less than 5 hours and should cost about $30/hr.
posted by Jon_Evil at 6:47 AM on September 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would not assume that any technology you have will work in a courtroom. I am a trial lawyer, and you cannot count on having access to any technology, much less that your technology will be compatible with what's in the courtroom. A Linux computer will almost certainly not work in most criminal courtrooms I've ever been in. And that's even assuming they'll let you bring your laptop into the courthouse; some places won't, and you'll be forced to leave your laptop (and your phone, and anything else with a camera/recorder/any technology more complicated than a pen) outside the courthouse. If you're going to make an exhibit, make a poster or something that doesn't rely on any technology whatsoever. And even then, don't assume they'll let you bring in a poster unless you have prior permission. You may not be allowed to.

I also would not assume you'll be able to use this exhibit in court. There are rules of evidence. There are also rules about exhibits (which are different in different jurisdictions, and you haven't told us what jurisdiction your trial is taking place in) that determine what you're allowed to use, and whether and when you need to give the other side advance notice of it. If you bring in a chart on the day of your trial, it may be inadmissible. It may be inadmissible even if you were to disclose it in advance. It may become clear over the course of the trial that it will be inadmissible based on how the evidence comes in at trial.

Finally, if you make a chart and bring it to your trial and your lawyer tells you it's a bad idea, listen to him/her. Making your own exhibit and letting the jury see it could, in some way, you've never considered, mess up your entire trial. Your lawyer will know whether it's a good idea.

IAAPublicDefender. IANYPublicDefender. TINLA. You should listen to your public defender and do what s/he says. If you can't reach her/him by phone, call and ask to speak to a supervisor. Your lawyer, even if s/he is busy, knows how to try a criminal case better than you do, and definitely knows what will fly in this particular courtroom better than you do. Don't get wedded to this idea, because it may not be a good one.
posted by decathecting at 6:55 AM on September 27, 2015 [24 favorites]


If I were doing that, I would make a graphic with pandas/ŷhat, or R/ggplot2. I'd test the graphic by showing it to friends whose jobs do *not* involve looking at charts and graphs. Once I was happy with it, I'd have the resulting PDF printed in a large size by Staples or similar.

It sounds like it would be reasonable to make the y axis show months, even if the data reflects days. If specific values/deltas are important to your story, a few annotations can likely help.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 7:26 AM on September 27, 2015


pandas/ŷhat, or R/ggplot2 are none of them “very intuitive”, as the OP requested.

Most people* are very bad at interpreting data. If you're even allowed to present these graphs, they're going to have to be simple. Very simple. Even something like Number of Dead People and BadCo Production vs time will have people confused.

If the data aren't changing very much, can you bin it into annual amounts and make a basic 9 column bar chart?

*: no 'fence, but from your linux and graphing stance, sounds like you don't know most people. Most people are nice but become flustered if you expect them to think. You may even come across as that terrible thing, The Technical Expert. You can be 100% correct but utterly discredited by one word from the opposition's legal team. They are paid to communicate well, and only communicate the shade of truth in the story that they tell the jury.
posted by scruss at 8:02 AM on September 27, 2015


There is no such thing as "the modern courtroom". Courtrooms have more resemblance, in style and substance, to bewigged judges straight out of Dickens. I think you are going to have serious issues presenting a chart as a piece of evidence, just from a readability standpoint. It's going to have to be big enough and have enough line weight to be visible to the whole courtroom, no? The jury could be 20 feet away. That's not a trivial application, especially since you've not used LibreOffice before, and there's the issue of who will print it. FedEx Kinko's / Office does a good job but are very expensive. I was happy with the quality from uprinting.com, for what that's worth. Will you bring a freestanding easel? Extra copies for the judge/prosecutor?
posted by wnissen at 8:38 AM on September 27, 2015


Oh, also, for all of the folks suggesting annotations or labels or zooms or comparisons, any or all of those may render your charts inadmissible if they would have otherwise been admissible. Even the labels on the axes could have an effect. There are specific rules about this sort of thing, and without knowing where this trial is taking place, right down to the specific judge and prosecutor in your case, there's simply no way for us to give you even the slightest guess as to whether these charts will even be allowed into the room, much less help your case.
posted by decathecting at 8:43 AM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem here is lack of access to your lawyer. Maybe you need to pay for an accessible lawyer. If you can't, well, explore changing your "can't "? Ask friends and family for help getting a lawyer? I'd suggest crowd funding but anything you put in the crowd funding page could potentially jeopardise your case.
posted by Mistress at 9:19 AM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


IAAL (IANYL; TINLA) and second what decatheting said. Talk to your lawyer before you sink too much time into this. What you are proposing may or may not be admissible or feasible, or there may be certain things that need to be done in order to make it usable (for example, disclosing or serving it ahead of time) that you should know about.

And that's not even getting into the content, which, if I were your lawyer, I would want to thoroughly vet. You don't want to inadvertently make yourself more vulnerable on cross-examination or throw the theory of your case. Small details count. Lay people (even expert witnesses) are often not aware of legal nuances that can have game-changing consequences.

I get what you said about having limited access to your lawyer, but if it were me, I'd try very hard to get a hold of them. And if I were your lawyer, I would NOT want to be surprised at the last minute - or worse, with my witness on the stand - with something that you clearly feel is of substance.

Lastly, on the technical side of things: I would not count on there being any technology in the courtroom. Sometimes it is because the judicial system is behind the times, and sometimes it is for a good reason (for example, cell phones can interfere with recording equipment). I personally would expect that if you can present your information in hard copy it would have a much better chance of being usable - but I'm just some random stranger on the Internet. Your lawyer would know better. Talk to your lawyer.
posted by AV at 9:30 AM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I also would not assume you'll be able to use this exhibit in court. There are rules of evidence. There are also rules about exhibits (which are different in different jurisdictions, and you haven't told us what jurisdiction your trial is taking place in) that determine what you're allowed to use, and whether and when you need to give the other side advance notice of it. If you bring in a chart on the day of your trial, it may be inadmissible. It may be inadmissible even if you were to disclose it in advance. It may become clear over the course of the trial that it will be inadmissible based on how the evidence comes in at trial.

This, a million times. As an attorney with lots of trial experience, I fretted and obsessed endlessly over the admissibility of, and possible objections to,.my trial graphics and demonstrative evidence. I applaud your initiative but it is highly likely that what you prepare will never see the light of day in trial.

I recommend that you make a HUGE nuisance of yourself to your attorney and sit down with her and plan out what graphics SHE needs you to prepare. If she doesn't return your calls, keep calling. if she still doesn't, escalate to her supervisor. If there were ever a squeaky wheel gets the grease situation, this is it.
posted by jayder at 7:01 PM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I second everyone who is cautioning you that creating the chart will be significantly less difficult than getting the judge to allow you to show it to the jury. This is absolutely not something you can make happen on the day of or negotiate - for example, some jurisdictions require you to provide all trial graphics and underlying data to the other side a set number of days before it is used, and the supporting materials may be defined broadly to include data you may not even be using for the chart. You need a lawyer's advice to know how to go about the project and what your chances of success are.
posted by prefpara at 6:33 AM on September 28, 2015


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