By Gary McElroy Mobile Press Register
Mobile jurors sitting in on civil and criminal circuit court cases in recent months have witnessed the beginning of a new era in legal advocacy.
Stark evidence like murder weapons or blood-stained clothes will always be part of the process, but more and more legal teams are using state-of-the-art media equipment to lay out their cases.
Thanks to a federal grant, Mobile County's circuit courts at Government Plaza downtown have been able to install a system that's received nearly universal praise for its efficiency and clarity.
Pertinent information can be displayed to the jury with the flip of a switch. It's like watching a courtroom show-and-tell on TV.
"We finally went from the 20th century to the 21st century," said Presiding Circuit Judge Charles Graddick.
The $500,000 grant also helped pay for security innovations and computers at the courthouse and the Strickland Youth Center.
Graddick said it would behoove lawyers -- old hands and rookies alike -- to learn to wield the high-tech toys with proficiency. "If I can figure it out, anybody can," the judge said.
Electronic displays are nothing new to the partners of the Mobile law firm Cunningham Bounds. They were one of first in Mobile to embrace the new technology, in a nursing home case 10 years ago.
The equipment was so advanced that the firm was required to hire specialists to operate it in court.
By 2000, paralegal Amanda Cotton said, firm partners realized it was "business smart" to purchase their own equipment, then learn to handle it.
The only downside, Cotton said, was having to cart to the courtroom what seemed like a warehouse's worth of monitors, computers, flat screens and audio equipment, and yards of wires, cords and cables.
The floor in front of the circuit benches looked as if a "rock band" had set up, Cotton said.
Firm member David Wirtes described the innovation as "the wave of the future -- with learning curves." He likened it to the changes encountered when manual typewriters gave way to electric versions, then word processors and finally personal computers.
In every circuit courtroom on the sixth and eighth floors of the courthouse, one huge screen hangs above the witness stand, another on the opposite wall.
Connected to these are individual monitors for the witness stand, the judge's bench and the opposing players at their respective tables. On these screens jurors can view maps, photographs, charts, documents and other evidence.
"Juries like it," said District Attorney John Tyson Jr., who described the format as "a spectacular advancement in advocacy for us."
Assistant District Attorney Jill Phillips said the new courtroom displays have vastly improved clarity in sound and images, whereas before sound was often inaudible and images dull and grainy.
For now, said defense lawyer Lee Hale Jr., the innovations have been more beneficial to the state.
"The state can generate a lot of emotion and sympathy with those god-awful pictures -- what happened to the person as a result of the crime," Lee said.
Mobile prosecutor Ashley Rich agreed with Hale, describing the new gear as "incredibly helpful" to the state's case.
In recent years, a key reminder from lawyers to jurors is that life in the real world, in real courtrooms, does not resemble television shows like CSI or Law and Order.
For example, Rich said, DNA does not come back from the lab in hours, nor do fingerprints sprout like mushrooms. She calls the spike in jurors' expectations the "CSI Syndrome."
Still, more and more evidence will find its way to the jury via 6-foot screens, Rich said. Jurors "want to see it," the prosecutor said, "and somehow we've got to get it to them."