The Murderer and The Unethical Powerpoint

Powerpoint slide

Why didn’t I see this coming? The Washington Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Odies Walker for murder and other crimes in the slaying and robbery of an armored car guard because the  prosecutor’s PowerPoint presentation during his  closing argument constituted “flagrant, pervasive, and prejudicial”  prosecutoral misconduct. While lawyers “may use multimedia resources in closing arguments to summarize and highlight relevant evidence,” the court ruled, “advocacy has its limits.”

The  prosecutor presented a whopping 250 PowerPoint slides to the jury during the summation, including 100 with the caption “defendant Walker guilty of premeditated murder.” The slide above with the caption, “Money is more important than human life,” was typical of the problem assailed by the justices: it was never alleged that Walker said this, or even thought it.

Worse was a picture of Walker and his family treating themselves to a big a dinner at Red Lobster after the killing,  labelled with an alleged quote from the defendant made  to his girlfriend’s son at the restaurant: “This is how you murder and rob niggers. Next time it will be more money.”  Another slide said that Walker was “guilty as an accomplice to the murder because he splurged on frivolous things.” The next slides show that he purchased two safes and video games after the incident, and paid for the Red Lobster dinner. He was guilty of the murder because he splurged on frivolous things? Wow—there must be millions of accomplices to that murder!

The opinion says that the use multimedia resources in closing arguments to summarize and highlight relevant evidence is acceptable, but that “advocacy has its limits.” “Closing argument provides an opportunity to draw the jury’s attention to the evidence presented,” but these slides “were altered with inflammatory captions and superimposed text, ” that presented “altered versions of admitted evidence to support the state’s theory of the case,” “derogatory depictions of the defendant,” and “personal opinions on the defendant’s guilt.”

The aesthetically pleasing-named Marshall Project has been tracking abuses of PowerPoint of late, and this kind of “Triumph of the Will”-style manipulation of images to sway juries (Leni was better at it, of course) is on the rise. I think they should be banned, unless a judge vets every slide before it reaches the jury. Images are powerful, and a slide portraying evidence should represent exactly what the jury has already seen, not some new, vivid packaging. The likelihood of PowerPoint abuse is so strong that it isn’t worth whatever positive benefits it might bring to trials. As usual, technology is taking the law and legal ethics by surprise, with standards being created in the breach of them rather than in a professional, orderly process.

Three other observations:

1. Why didn’t the defense object?

2. Why didn’t the judge stop this with or without an objection?

3. The Pierce County Prosecutor, Mark Lindquist, issued a press release saying that the evidence in the case was “overwhelming” and that he plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court for review. If the evidence was so overwhelming, why did the prosecution need a 250 slide PowerPoint to prove Walker’s guilt?


Pointer and Sources: ABA Journal

Source: The Marshall Project 1, 2


5 thoughts on “The Murderer and The Unethical Powerpoint

  1. I blame television. This is the kind of insanity you would see on The Firm, or Boston Legal (both of which I found entertaining, if factually oblivious).

  2. It is safe to assume that the Marshall Project, tracking the abuse of Powerpoint, has not cracked into the Military Plans and Operations Staff Sections…

    It would quit its noble effort and take to drinking…

    It would seem that 250 pages, with explicit statements of guilt were less to convince and more to brainwash. What did the Simpson’s episode call it? Superliminal messaging?

    • To pile on, having been a former member of the US Army Corps of Staff Captains, I can attest to not only enduring 500+ slides at once, I even contributed to some… Speaking of torture.

  3. Good luck to the judges in halting the march of technology powering the public’s right-to-know-everything fantasy. Since the first televised trial, viewers have been clamoring for more of a look in, and a more familiar TV ambience. The reality of the courtroom and its laws are going to dissolve before a need for speed, commercial breaks, running commentary sotto voce from positions at bench and witness stand, prosecution and defense tables, … scrolling tweets, texted Q&As … and eventually, “likes”-from-the home jurors. I give it three to four years.

  4. Perhaps they should stop prosecutors from coming up with fanciful theories first, then torturing the evidence (especially exculpatory evidence) to make it fit the theory. This powerpoint demonstration seems to be a minor example of the invented narrative (the invented captions and the fanciful linking of paying for dinner to be a sinister act).

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