Bringing Demonstrative Evidence in from the Cold: The Academy’s Role in Developing Model Rules
Volume 88, No. 3, Spring 2016
By Maureen A. Howard, Associate Professor of Law and Director of Trial Advocacy at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, and Jeffery C. Barnum, judge advocate in the United States Coast Guard [PDF]

To this day, judges and advocates struggle with the definition and use of “demonstrative evidence.” The ambiguity of this term (or its close cousins “illustrative evidence” and evidence offered “for illustrative purposes only”) infects the judicial process with uncertainty, hindering advocates when preparing for trial and, in some cases, producing erroneous verdicts. For example, the Seventh Circuit recently reversed a case for improper use of a demonstrative exhibit, and on retrial the result swung from a defense verdict to an $11 million plaintiff’s victory.

Uncertainty about the admission and use of demonstrative evidence has festered for decades. Lawyers innovate in presenting their cases, forcing judges to make case-by-case rulings. This is increasingly significant as technology becomes commonly used throughout trial practice. Law professors in turn solidify this unpredictable practice by teaching subsequent generations that the admission of demonstrative evidence is subject only to the unbounded discretion of the trial court.

While this confusion has been long acknowledged and ably documented, it has not galvanized reform. Trial advocacy and evidence professors should meet at this intersection of their respective areas of scholarship and teaching; they should capitalize on their collective knowledge and influence and propose to the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Evidence a set of uniform, analytically sound Model Rules for Demonstrative Evidence. Until evidence rules are amended to address the problem, professors should teach the Model Rules alongside the current unpredictable, ad hoc practice. Exposure to such standardized criteria during law school will influence a generation of future lawyers and judges, promoting consistency in the handling of demonstrative evidence in the courtroom.