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