Learning About the Visual Presenter  (Document Camera, Elmo)

[See also CCJA's Courtroom Technology] Within the next couple of years virtually every courtroom in the land will utilize the visual presenter. It's already part of the furnishings of metropolitan courtrooms. If it is part of the courtroom landscape in your jurisdiction, chances are that your local court has an online manual explaining how to use it. (1 - 18 page Okla. atty's manual), (2 - 22 page Ohio atty's manual), (3 - ND federal court) The visual presenter (also known as a document camera (1 - Wiki),  evidence camera, Elmo - a brand name, or evidence presenter) is simply a small TV camera mounted on an arm that is extended over a platform base that is essentially a light box. We will refer to it as a "visual presenter" because its use is not limited to displaying documents, though it is very useful for that purpose.

The visual presenter is lightweight, under ten pounds, and can be easily transported. It plugs into a standard AC outlet. In court, the visual presenter is simple to set up. Typically, the visual presenter is hooked up (connected) by a single cable to a video projector or video monitor. The video projector is pointed toward a screen, usually an eight foot or ten foot sized screen. The visual presenter will then display an image onto the screen of any item that is placed on the video platform of the visual presenter. Alternatively, the displayed item can also be projected onto one or more wide-screen video monitors (Don't use regular TVs because their resolution capabilities, i.e., clarity and sharpness, are not as good as a video monitor.) placed near the jurors; if the visual presenter is not fixed, a moveable cart is a good place to put your monitor.

Learning to Use the Visual Presenter in the Courtroom

To be an effective presenter of tangible evidence in the courtroom, you must learn to competently operate a visual presenter. It's a terrific low-tech replacement for the overhead projector that you can easily operate to get maximum visual persuasiveness out of your exhibits. Practice using the visual presenter before using it for the first time in front of a jury. Don't put yourself in the position of being fumble-fingered with the visual presenter at trial. [Note: I have taught a law school course in trial advocacy for many years and always try to get the students thoroughly familiar with the visual presenter. Yet I have found that 20% of them won't make a serious effort because they think the controls are self-explanatory. When it comes time for their mini-trials, the 20% try to learn to operate the machine in front of their trial jury, fumbling with the controls and sometimes shutting the system down because they aren't familiar with how to control it. It's embarrassing to them and, more importantly, damaging to their case because they are wasting the jury's time.]

Timing is important. Remember to use the visual presenter to display the item of evidence before the jury only after you have established any necessary authentication and/or foundation and obtained permission of the court to display it, e.g., "Your Honor, may I display State's Exhibit No. 3 for the jury?" In cases of real evidence, e.g, the murder weapon, the item should be in evidence as an exhibit before you display it on the video platform. If the item is admitted for demonstrative purposes only, e.g., a diagram, the predicate for its use before the jury must be established before you display it.

Don't overuse the visual presenter to the point that the screen rather than the witness becomes the center of attention. The visual presenter is a device that supports (not supplants) your fact witness' oral testimony with a visual confirmation. Only in cases where the witness is simply an authenticating witness, e.g., a business records librarian, will the primary focus be on the item shown on the screen and not on the witness.

Should you ever allow your witness to operate the visual presenter or should you do it? Obviously, you won't want to turn control of the presenter platform over to an opposition witness. The decision to turn the operation of the machine over to your witness may depend partly on your witness' skill in operating the controls and testifying at the same time. A smooth audio-visual witness presentation, with minimal lawyer involvement, might be more persuasive than one controlled by the lawyer. It's a matter of choice. Most lay persons are not up to it, The same is true for most experts - though one might imagine a highly skilled forensic pathologist doing an effective "tell and show" explanation at the controls of the visual presenter. Typically, you will operate the visual presenter at trial after preparing the witness and choreographing the visual presentation with the witness' testimony during pretrial planning and preparation.    

Features of the Visual Presenter (Document Camera)

Zoom Feature: With a little practice, you can learn to operate the visual presenter. The  zoom ("tele" button) allows you to zoom in on the displayed item, so as to automatically enlarge the size of the item or part of an item on the display screen. If there is a particular part of the document or object that you want the jurors to see, you can use the zoom feature to focus the juror's attention on that portion of the item. The zoom feature of the visual presenter functions in the courtroom as an easily used enlarger of documents, photos, and small objects.

Artificial Light Source: For most black and white documents and photos, you will need no extra light. The document camera is, however, fitted with two sets of lights. The external light source comes from two winged extended overhead lights on each side of the platform. You should always use these lights when displaying items in the color mode, e.g., colored photographs. They make the color contrast more vivid. The internal light is contained under the platform. By turning on the internal light below the platform (typically, the button marked "base"), you can easily display transparencies, X-rays, 35 mm slides, and film negatives.

Negatives and Positives of Negatives: The positive/negative switch feature of the document camera (typically, the button marked "pos/neg") allows you to convert a negative into a positive, e.g., an x-ray's light/dark values can be adjusted to reverse the shading. There is an adjustment knob on the overhead camera that also allows you to manually adjust the camera for maximum contrast of x-rays.

Black and White and Color: The visual presenter (document camera) can be adjusted for displays of colored and black and white documents, photos, and objects. Simply press the color switch (typically, the button marked "color/ b&w"). Turn the color switch off when displaying black and white documents. If you leave the color switch on while displaying black and white documents, the contrast of the black and white document will not be sharp.  A colored photo can be changed to black and white by using this switch. [Practice Note: This feature can be useful to prosecutors who may be able to successfully display bloody photos that would otherwise be inadmissible because of their unfairly prejudicial and gruesome effect; on the other hand, if the trial court decides to allow bloody photos into evidence, the defense may successfully petition the court to limit the display to black and white only. See Motions.]

Focus: The focus can be set to automatic or manual. When set in the manual mode, there are two buttons that can be used for adjusting focus, near (typically, marked "N") and far (typically, marked "F"). When the item you want to display is a three-dimensional object, you may want to use the manual mode. When it it a two-dimensional item that lies flat, such as a document, use autofocus.

Other Connections: Modern visual presenters have video in and out ports or RGB ports that permit the user to connect a computer or VCR to the unit. Thus, you can route your computer presentation, e.g., PowerPoint, sound and or video through the  document camera. See Courtroom Technology.

Advantages of the Document Camera

The visual presenter has the advantage of allowing all the jurors to view the displayed item at the same time. It also facilitates a witness, using a pen-sized laser pointer (available for around $25 up from any office supply store), in explaining, in "tell and show" fashion, what is being displayed to the jury. The best uses of the visual presenter are to display regular-sized documents such as flat photos, simple documents, or small objects that can be easily seen, read, and/or observed. Objects and documents that fit onto the lighted platform are most easily displayed.

Trial Tip: The document camera is a fantastic way of displaying relevant text of admissible learned treatises to the expert. If you can get by the limitation under the hearsay exception that the learned treatise cannot be introduced as an exhibit but must be read to the fact-finder, it can be very persuasive to have your expert or the opposition's expert read to the jury from the selected text of the learned treatise as that text of the treatise is displayed for the witness and jury by the document camera.

Practical Tips in Using a Document Camera

  • ZOOM: Learn to use the zoom feature to enlarge the item or a portion of it. To do this, first, put the item on the platform and display the whole item, Then, press the button marked "tele" until you get the desired degree of enlargement and focus. It will help to find the desired portion of the item if you place your finger directly under the area to be enlarged. (Make sure your fingernails are clean! They will be magnified. If you have dirty or ugly nails, use a pencil point.) Watch the screen for your finger/pointer, not the platform. Don't zoom in haphazardly and try to search the part of interest. Know where you are aiming before you zoom. If you want to pull back to regular field of vision press the button marked "wide." [Practice Note: Let the jury see you zoom in from the entire item to the particular part that is of interest. You don't want them thinking you are trying to hide anything.] If the enlargement makes your point, remove the item from the platform and zoom out on an empty screen. That way you prepare the camera, i.e., restore it to its normal focus, for the next item you will place upon the platform

  • TELEVISING LATERALLY: You can use the built in video camera on some units to practice or  rehearse your presentations. The camera will customarily be pointed downward toward the display platform. A flip up camera contained on some units allows you to change the direction of the unit's aim. The direction of aim may be changed to allow you to televise to the front. This feature is useful as an electronic mirror for dress rehearsal of yourself practicing your opening statement or jury argument. You can watch yourself on the screen or monitor.

  • DISPLAYING SCALE WITH A RULER: If you are displaying a small object and scale is important, place a 6 or 12 -inch ruler on the platform beside the item. You'll need to have a couple of such rulers in your trial kit bag.

  • SMOOTHNESS OF PRESENTATION: To repeat an earlier admonition, let the jury follow the item you are displaying. Place it on the video platform and allow the entire item to be displayed before zooming into a particular part. You want the jurors to see with their own eyes that you are starting from the entire exhibit and focusing on a part. To find the part that you want to focus on, move it to the center of the platform and put your finger or a pencil pointer on it. Take time to look at the screen and only then zoom in using your finger or the pencil tip as a guide.

  • BRIGHT LINING WITH COLORED MARKER: If it is part of a document that you want to display, have the witness highlight the important part with a yellow bright-liner marker. It's a bit more clumsy to highlight the document with a colored marker while it's on the the platform, though that may be appropriate in some circumstances.

  • BUY YOURSELF A LASER POINTER: Pen-sized, battery operated red-dot laser pointers can be purchased for as low as $25 at office supply stores. Buy one and keep it ready. It goes with a visual presenter and screen/monitor like ham and eggs. Use the laser pointer to point at the monitor or screen, rather than trying to point at the object on the platform. You can use the pointer or your witness can use it. Thus, you may allow your witness to control the laser pointer, but typically you won't give it to the witness you are cross-examining. If you maintain control of the pointer, you maintain more control of the jury's focus. When you identify the area of the visual you are going to discuss, you point the pointer at the image and then turn the pointer on. Do not turn the pointer on before you aim it. The laser beam can do damage when pointed at another person's eyes. Rotate the beam around the object in question to spotlight it. When you are ready for the jury to look back at the witness or you, turn the laser pointer off. If you don't have a laser pointer, don't use your finger to point at the object on the platform. The blown-up finger is distracting (even if the nails are tidy and not chewed to the quick) and is not a good pointer. Instead, use a pointed pencil or pen.

Other Resources

+ If you are shopping for a visual presenter (document camera, video platform, ELMO), to rent or buy Google "visual presenter," and you will find many listings; here are a couple of places to start. (1), (2 - ELMO)

+ This 16-minute streaming video, describing the electronic courtroom gadgetry of a new federal courthouse in Texas, is good evidence that the document camera is will soon be the most primitive electronic device that you will need to master as a courtroom warrior. Here's a 10-page article on the Document Camera (visual presenter). See also (1 - 4 pages on use of document camera in classroom), (2 - trial lawyer on the visual presenter), (3 - equipment rental vendor discusses courtroom use of visual presenter)


Visual Presenter
(Document  Camera)
using a visual presenter,
LCD or DLP projector, screen or video monitor
in the courtroom

copyright © 2001 Ray Moses
all rights reserved