The Volokh Conspiracy

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PowerPoint in opening statements and summations to juries


From State v. Rivera (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 10, 2014):

Our courts have not yet addressed the use of PowerPoint presentations during opening statements or summations in criminal trials in a published opinion. Other courts have, however, considered the matter.

The Nevada Supreme Court has concluded that a PowerPoint, "as an advocate's tool, is not inherently good or bad" and that "its propriety depends on content and application." Watters v. State, 313 P.3d 243, 247 (Nev.2013). The Court further determined that a PowerPoint accompanying an opening is permissible if "the content is consistent with the scope and purpose of opening statements and does not put inadmissible evidence or improper argument before the jury."

We fully agree that the content, not the medium, is important. That view is consistent with the approach our Supreme Court has taken with respect to other technological advances used in connection with trial court proceedings.

Faced with a pre-presentation challenge to use of a PowerPoint in an opening, a court should apply the law governing opening statements. In some respects, use of PowerPoints has potential to advance the interests of fairness in opening statements because the court may direct removal of prejudicial material before a prosecutor displays a slide to the jury.

Now, whether PowerPoint presentations are effective—as opposed to legally permissible—is of course a different matter. I will say, though, that the effectiveness has to be judged in comparison with the effectiveness of long purely oral presentations, which have their own problems. When I give talks at law schools, I almost always use PowerPoints, because I think that, done right, they help listeners follow along, and are especially good when you are giving numbered lists (elements of a crime, factual details, main headings of your argument, and the like), text (the language of a contract or a policy), or numerical data.

On the other hand, that's my personal experience, none of which includes jury trials. If you've used PowerPoints in jury trials, or saw them used, please pass along your thoughts.