How to Introduce and Present Exhibits at Trial

Presenting exhibits at trial

Trial attorneys often invest in their presentation game—eliminating ticks, getting over public speaking nerves, and dressing to hit the just-right level of professionalism. Presentation, after all, is key to not only holding your audience’s attention but swaying them to your argument. 

A quick way to lose points, however, is fumbling exhibits. Technical glitches, objections, delays—regardless of how human it is; any error will be what jurors remember the most. 

Effective preparation means understanding how to prepare exhibits for court and how to introduce exhibits at trial in addition to all the intricacies of your case. 

Understanding the Importance of Exhibits in Trial

Although the “65% of people are visual learners” statement isn’t grounded in scientific research, we all know that comprehension and retention take more than sitting still and listening to a speaker for hours on end.1 The more senses you can draw on to bring your story to life, the more you’ll engage your audience. 

Visual exhibits are particularly critical at trial to help jurors: 

  • Understand medical, scientific, manufacturing, finance, or other complex information
  • Follow a process, path, or series of events
  • Group and connect ideas or instances
  • Remember information and their initial impressions of an argument or exhibit
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Collecting and Organizing Exhibits

By the end of a case, you may have multiple sets of evidentiary identifiers. Long before you settle on a final exhibits list, you’ll want to electronically and physically tag anything of interest during discovery to track via software or a spreadsheet. 

Gathering Evidence

As soon as you begin to gather evidence—or potential evidence—keep exhibits in mind. Evidence is categorized in multiple ways, but the most basic is the division of real vs. demonstrative. 

  • Real evidence, at its core, refers to physical objects found at the scene of the crime such as weapons and clothing. It also encompasses items that directly capture or record the occurrence or transaction, such as footprint casts, crime scene photos and videos, and analysis of captured material, such as DNA results. In a civil matter, real evidence could include original signed documents, authenticated audiovisual recordings, or x-rays. 
  • Demonstrative evidence encompasses anything that supports a witness testimony. This could include a combination of documents, recordings, or objects that can be authenticated as relevant and reliable. It can also include illustrative evidence, or presentations created in any format specifically to inform juries. 

Categorizing and Labeling for Clarity

During the discovery process, as you pore through court documents, analyze data, and interview potential witnesses, don’t just look for direct evidence to build your case on. Consider and tag items that may be compelling or convincing as part of an exhibit. 

At this stage, through to the final exhibits list, apply consistent, clearly formatted, and easy-to-decipher naming and documentation protocols. Any team member should be able to easily scan and comprehend how information is classified, labeled, and summarized.

Use a spreadsheet or dedicated software that allows you to easily search, filter, and group information throughout trial preparation. 

Categorizing and Labeling for Court

Check with your state’s guidelines on preparing exhibits for court before you invest time organizing them. At the trial stage, you may need to: 

  • Fill out an exhibit list with a description and exhibit number or letter 
  • Identify exhibits as physical, electronic, or both
  • Use specific file naming protocol and sequencing for digital files
  • Bookmark and annotate PDFs 
  • Accommodate digital exhibit requirements on file formats, organization, size, etc.
  • Pre-mark exhibits prior to trial

For court, stickers or labels will display exhibit identification that’s simpler than what you use internally during discovery. Exhibits from the plaintiff are typically labeled numerically as Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, and so forth, while defense exhibits are coded by letter: Exhibit A, Exhibit B, etc.2

However, exhibits aren’t always introduced in the order originally planned on your exhibits list. If your court guidelines stick with the actual order of introduction during trial, then include a sticker on each trial exhibit with “Exhibit ___” on it that can easily be filled out in court.3

Legal Requirements for Court Exhibits

The most stunning and convincing exhibit may not make it in front of a jury. There are a few stages to the life and use of both real and demonstrative evidence:2 

  • First, exhibits must be identified, listed, and submitted to opposing counsel
  • Next, an exhibit is typically offered to the court for review of admissibility 
  • If accepted by the judge, exhibits are recorded as admitted
  • Even if admitted, an exhibit may or may not be presented to the jury

Admissibility Standards

State guidelines vary slightly but tend to follow the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE). Under Rule 402, the FRE states that “relevant evidence is admissible” unless it’s an exception by the Constitution, statute, or further clarifying court rules.4 

The exceptions to relevance mean that evidence is not admissible if it is: 

  • Prejudicial, confusing, or a waste of time (Rule 403)
  • Character evidence and evidence of other crimes, wrong, or acts (Rule 404)
  • Hearsay (Rule 802, which does allow several exceptions)

Ensuring Compliance with Court Rules

Exhibits are often considered at pre-trial motions or in hearings outside of the jury’s presence to determine whether they’re compliant with the FRE or state court rules. Filing motions in limine, particularly for demonstrative evidence, can help prevent objections and delays, and provide time to make changes to overcome inadmissibility.3 

In addition to arguing the relevance of an exhibit—and that its relevance is not overruled by the exceptions noted above—most types of exhibits in court may need to prove: 

  • Authentication via witness testimony, affidavits, or certifications 
  • Authenticity testing via handwriting analysis, ink or paper dating, etc.
  • Lack-of-alteration testing via photo or file metadata analysis, etc.
  • Chain of custody proof via detailed documentation and/or witness 

Introducing Exhibits During the Trial

Once the administration and qualification of exhibits are checked off, it’s time to focus on how and when to introduce them to the jury—and how to adapt if change is required. You may need to alter exhibit content, sequence, or delivery based on: 

  • Witness availability
  • Jury response to opposing arguments
  • Relevance of evidence in response to unexpected witness testimony

Use a binder with sections that can be swapped around easily, and include copies of both physical and digital exhibits in your binder for reference and adaptation. However, it’s important to note that digital presentations are much more common now, and it may be worth consulting a trial services partner to help. 

Also, in addition to the originals that will be submitted into evidence, bring physical copies: 

  • To provide opposing counsel
  • For your own reference
  • As backup of digital exhibits with enough copies to distribute

Timing and Sequence of Presentation

Separate from the initial evidence list and the exhibits list submitted to the court, set up a list of exhibits that will (or may) be used at trial. It should include information pertinent to supporting stages of your argument, such as: 

  • Identification (Exhibit A, Exhibit 1, etc.), title, and format
  • Description in a single phrase or sentence
  • Relevance: what it establishes, provides, illustrates, or suggests
  • Location in a binder or digital folder, and what software is used to display it

Simply reading through this list, complete with the relevance notation, should provide the outline of the story that your arguments will tell. The order is connected to how elements of the type of evidence, like physical evidence, connect narratively in the way that best proves your case. 

Also, consider timing in terms of: 

  • Import and impactfulness of each trial exhibit
  • What best captures jury interest or sympathy early on
  • How your exhibits play against the sequence of opposing counsel exhibits
  • What exhibits do you want to be foremost during closing arguments

Techniques for Effective Introduction

There’s no quick tip that takes the place of practice. Do a full run-through with all exhibits and consider how to: 

  • Pace your speaking and keep the jury focused where you want 
  • Physically pick up, handle, or display real evidence
  • Minimize time spent seeking the right physical or digital files
  • Use controls to change views, advance slides, or play, stop, and repeat files
  • Address technology glitches
  • Avoid turning your back to the jury

In addition to practice, consider: 

  • Preparing for any objections, you can anticipate
  • Using a legal technician or presentation specialist in court 
  • Researching display devices and conditions in the specific courtroom
  • Set up all connections and materials ahead of time

Partner with TrialEx for Impactful Exhibits

Before you present your exhibits to the court, make sure they can pull their weight. TrialEx transforms complex information into graphics and demonstrative exhibits that educate jurors, enhance their retention of key facts, and illuminate your case arguments. 

Their team of professionals includes professional designers who have specific experience in illustrating, animating, and crafting presentations not just for the legal industry but for specific practice areas. From medical to maritime, we can deliver presentations that help you win cases. 

TrialEx and DecisionQuest are now part of the trial services division of U.S. Legal Support. Together, we offer decades of experience providing top-notch consulting and support services to attorneys and firms of all practice sizes and types. 

Our combined teams have supported over 20,000 high-risk trials, arbitrations, and mediations in nationwide jurisdictions. We provide trial graphics, exhibits, and demonstratives, trial presentation and technology services, jury research and consulting, mock trials, and witness preparation. 

In addition to litigation consulting and trial services, U.S. Legal Support supports attorneys with multi-methodology court reporting, realtime transcription, interpreting and translation services, record retrieval, analysis, and organization, and more 

Ready to learn more? Visit our trial services page for further details or to connect with us directly. 

Sources: 

  1. Lightbulb Moment. “65 percent of people are visual learners” is lazy journalism. https://lightbulbmoment.info/2018/11/03/65-percent-of-people-are-visual-learners-is-lazy-journalism/
  2. Law Office of Gerald Oginski. Trial Exhibits: Numbered or Alphabetical? Does It Really Make a Difference? https://www.oginski-law.com/blog/trial-exhibits-numbered-or-alphabetical-whats-difference-.cfm
  3. One Legal. 6 steps to building your exhibit list and preparing exhibits. https://www.onelegal.com/blog/building-exhibit-list-and-preparing-exhibits/
  4. Cornell Law School. admissible evidence. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/admissible_evidence
Julie Feller
Julie Feller
Julie Feller is the Vice President of Marketing at U.S. Legal Support where she leads innovative marketing initiatives. With a proven track record in the legal industry, Juie previously served at Abacus Data Systems (now Caret Legal) where she played a pivotal role in providing cutting-edge technology platforms and services to legal professionals nationwide.

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Content published on the U.S. Legal Support blog is reviewed by professionals in the legal and litigation support services field to help ensure accurate information. The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice for attorneys or clients.