Images of Conviction
By Carolyn Said
No one in California had ever been found guilty of murder in a dog-mauling case. But in the infamous case of Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, whose Presa Canario dogs killed their neighbor Diane Whipple, San Francisco prosecutors charged Knoller with second-degree murder. Despite the grisly facts and the defendants’ outrageous public statements, legal observers agreed that getting a murder conviction would be an uphill battle.
Focal Point, an Oakland firm that creates courtroom graphics, ended up playing a key role in helping prosecutors make their case, both by conceptualizing their arguments and by producing visual images to bolster them.
The firm has worked on the winning side in a broad range of blockbuster cases. They include the U.S. Department of Justice vs. Oracle, where Focal Point worked on Oracle’s defense that its acquisition of PeopleSoft didn’t violate antitrust laws; InterTrust Technologies vs. Microsoft, a patent case in which Microsoft ended up paying $440 million to InterTrust; and Chiron vs. Genentech, another patent case that ended in a victory for Genentech on all counts.
The Focal Point also worked for the prosecution in last year’s headline-grabbing murder case against Scott Peterson, primarily in refining arguments during the pretrial phase.
The company is far more than a design studio, said James Hammer, who as a San Francisco assistant district attorney and lead prosecutor in the dog-mauling case hired Focal Point.
“At first glance, people think they just make graphics,” he said. “That’s less than half of what they do. They take very complex things and help boil them down in a simple way.”
In the mauling case, Hammer’s team had to prove that Noel and Knoller fully knew the danger posed by their two dogs.
The Focal Point came up with a reverse timeline, starting with the actual crime when the dogs killed Whipple in January 2001.
Every previous time when the dogs had betrayed vicious tendencies was represented by a red triangle on an electronic display projected onto a large screen.
Each triangle could be clicked to display information and testimony about prior incidents, such as when a bite from one of the dogs sent Noel to the hospital and almost cost him his finger.
The timeline, with its 30 triangles representing past warning signs, “became the central area from which (lawyers) built all the other evidence,” said Andy Spingler, Focal Point’s founder and a partner. A big printout of the timeline “stayed up in the courtroom, constantly reinforced, and became a springboard to other aspects of the case,” Spingler said.
The timeline created a sense of “growing danger, the ominous nature of what was to come. It told the story of what led up to Diane’s death in a very graphically interesting, compelling way,” said Hammer, now a legal analyst with Fox and KTVU. “That concept of the red triangles, said everything. It said ‘Warning.’ It showed the idea of adding up to the tragic ending.”
Implied malice explained
Focal Point also did a graphic giving a simple, four-part explanation of implied malice, which is a prerequisite for a second-degree murder conviction. Focus groups had shown potential jurors detested the defendants, but didn’t see how implied malice was involved.
The jury convicted Knoller of second-degree murder, but the trial judge reduced the count to involuntary manslaughter. Noel, who was not present at the attack, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. In May, a state appeals court upheld Knoller’s second-degree murder conviction.
The Focal Point and jury consultant Howard Varinsky “really helped us win, frankly,” Hammer said.
Spingler founded Focal Point in 1989 after working at an accounting firm where he helped partners prepare expert-witness testimony for various civil cases.
Since then, courtroom graphics have become a common tool in attorney’s arsenal. Spingler said only a handful of companies nationwide provided similar services 15 years ago. Today, any decent size city has five or six such companies advertising under “Attorney Services” in the Yellow Pages.
The Focal Point dubs its strategy sessions for lawyers “mental mining.”
The brainstorming sessions can draw inspiration from an array of sources: old episodes of “I Love Lucy,” children’s toys or the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind,” as Focal Point partner Chris Ritter explained in his book, “Creating Winning Trial Strategies and Graphics,” published by the American Bar Association last year.
Because trial lawyers need to be able to tell a coherent story, the firm hires a professional storyteller, Joel ben Izzy, as a consultant on some cases.
Part of the process involves overcoming a paradox: Lawyers, by their nature, collect more and more data during discovery, adding more and more facts, but graphics need to be as simple as possible, Spingler said.
“That confinement is like a haiku,” Ritter said. “You have to eliminate as much as display. It’s a real winnowing-down process that leads to well thought-out graphics.”
“The message is more important than the technology,” Ritter said after leading a tour of the firm’s offices near Jack London Square. The airy rooms have the feel of an architect’s atelier, featuring walls of collages celebrating cases that Focal Point helped to win.
The Focal Point’s rates range from $300 an hour for strategy sessions with Ritter or Spingler to $150 to $175 an hour for artists–time to $100 an hour for quality checking.
The firm, which has 22 employees, handles about 100 cases a year around the country. Graphics are usually delivered electronically via secure Web sites.
They then may be printed out or displayed electronically in the courtroom, depending on each trial location’s protocols. For about a fourth of cases, a Focal Point staffer goes to the trial site and works with the case’s attorneys, crafting graphics and strategy as the trial unfolds.
The company has a wealth of high-tech wizardry at its disposal: It can whip up interactive, 3-D rotating, and morphing animations as sophisticated as the latest Japanese anime.
But when lawyers defending basketball star Kobe Bryant against rape allegations hired Focal Point, the firm had a decidedly low-tech suggestion.
“We helped Pamela Mackey (Bryant’s attorney) figure out ways to appear to be a teacher in a very low-key way, using whiteboards to draw and display things,” Ritter said.
“Standing up there and sketching something simple on a board gets the jury’s attention. The person up there drawing and lecturing gives the feeling of being a teacher, who is a very trusted person,” he said. (The Bryant criminal case was withdrawn before going to trial.)
“A lot of lawyers become wedded to believing technology will be their savior,” Ritter said. “(They) think if they spend enough money on technology, they won’t have to make the case simple and clear for jurors to understand.”
Anyone who’s read a John Grisham thriller or watched “The Practice” knows that lawyers have a reputation for being slick, something that attorneys who use courtroom graphics want to guard against.
“There’s a delicate balance of using powerful graphics without detracting from your story,” Hammer said. “You can have so many graphics that people are reading them instead of listening to you. But in the MTV cable age, where everything is visual, to just talk at people for three hours is a bad idea. (Focal Point) strikes a happy medium.”
Appeared in San Francisco Chronicle
July 08, 2005