How to Introduce Court Exhibits Into Evidence at Trial
If you are an attorney or a party in a lawsuit representing yourself ("pro se" or "pro per"), you'll probably need to introduce one or more trial exhibits into evidence at trial to support your claims or defenses. These may include documents, letters, emails, notes, maps, diagrams, etc.
Evidentiary foundations need to be properly laid to get your exhibits admitted into evidence so that the jury may consider them in deliberations. But before we dive into HOW to introduce an exhibit at trial, let's back up and discuss the basics of exhibits.
What is a court exhibit?
According to Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019), an exhibit (in court) is a “document, record, or other tangible object formally introduced as evidence in court.”
In this article, we will focus primarily on document exhibits. In simple terms, exhibits provide an easy way for the court to categorize and keep track of the evidence in a case.
Is there a difference between a court exhibit and a trial exhibit?
In this article, we use the terms court exhibit and trial exhibit interchangeably.
But for curiosity sake, there is a slight nuance between the terms court exhibit and trial exhibit — even though many use the terms to mean the same thing.
A trial exhibit would be presented strictly at trial, whereas a court exhibit might be used at trial or in a court hearing (e.g., evidentiary hearing) that occurs before trial.
Examples of trial exhibits
Here are some examples of exhibits that might be used at trial:
This list is not exhaustive — but it should provide a good idea of the types of items or evidence that could be used as an exhibit at trial.
What is an exhibit list in court?
An exhibit list is a court document that lists all the exhibits that you intend to (or may) use at trial. You'll need to check your jurisdiction to find out precisely what information an exhibit list in your district includes or requires.
It will likely include the exhibit number, description of the exhibit, and information on the court, case number, whether the exhibit list is for the plaintiff or the defendant, and other information to help identify, organize, and prepare the exhibits for trial.
In some courts, you may also need to disclose exhibits that you plan to use for demonstrative purposes — which we'll discuss below.
What are demonstrative exhibits?
As the name suggests, demonstrative exhibits are intended to “demonstrate” an important fact or set of facts in your case, usually through a visual depiction. A demonstrative exhibit can be helpful to establish context or provide a reference point for events that occurred.
Demonstrative exhibits can include timelines, illustrations, graphs, simulations, sketches, and the like. They recreate or represent something in the case so that jurors can visualize or reconstruct the events (or order of the events) of the case in their minds.
Check your local rules to determine which demonstrative exhibits are allowed in your jurisdiction's courts. Regardless, you will need to follow the applicable rules of evidence and properly lay a foundation if you intend to include a demonstrative exhibit at trial.
How Do You Introduce Exhibits at Trial?
Now that we have discussed courtroom exhibit basics, we can dive into HOW to present exhibits at trial — and lay a foundation to get them admitted into evidence by the judge.
First, some (even many) exhibits may be agreed upon (“stipulated” to) by the parties, in order to save time — especially with non-controversial items. Or, occasionally, the judge may issue a ruling before trial (during a pre-trial hearing) that certain exhibits are admissible.
Learn more about pre-trial court hearings and court etiquette here.
If you want to introduce an exhibit at trial, here are six common steps for introducing exhibits (remember to follow your jurisdiction's laws and court rules):
- Mark the exhibit for identification
- Show the exhibit to the opposing attorney
- Request permission to approach the witness or hand the exhibit to the bailiff (learn more about courtroom etiquette)
- Show the exhibit to the witness
- Lay the proper foundation for the exhibit
- Ask the judge to enter the exhibit into evidence
For video litigation simulations covering ways to introduce various exhibits at trial, check out Trial Essentials:
Let's break down the general components of laying a foudnation for an exhibit, and answer some of the questions you might have.
How do you mark exhibits (label exhibits) for court?
There are a few ways that you can mark exhibits for court. One way is to mark the exhibit with a marker or ballpoint pen. Other options include using exhibit stickers or having the court clerk label the exhibit. It all depends on the jurisdiction — rules differ.
You'll probably want to keep the exhibit labels marked in consecutive order so they are easy to identify (A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3).
But as always, check your court rules.
How do you lay an evidentiary foundation for exhibits?
Laying an evidentiary foundation (or simply "laying a foundation") for an exhibit involves proving to the judge that the exhibit you want to introduce is relevant and complies with the local rules of evidence.
You typically accomplish this by questioning a witness, asking them to confirm that they:
- Are familiar with the exhibit;
- Understand what it is; and
- Acknowledge it is genuine.
You will probably also need to establish additional elements through the witness' testimony to show that the exhibit complies with the local rules of evidence and is reliable and relevant.
Laying an evidentiary foundation is crucial when introducing exhibits at trial. Without a proper foundation, the court may refuse to admit certain exhibits and you could find that your key evidence is inadmissible at trial.
Here are two common reasons parties fail to get exhibits admitted into evidence at trial because of lack of foundation:
- They don't know the proper legal basis for why the exhibit is admissible as evidence — and therefore can't demonstrate to the court why it should be allowed (this is where objections to exhibits at trial come into play — and why you need to understand the rules of evidence in your jurisdiction).
- The exhibits simply aren't admissible in court because they violate the rules of evidence.
Learn more about rules of evidence here.
If you can't demonstrate that the court exhibit is admissible under the applicable rules of evidence, you will not be able to enter your exhibit into evidence for the jury to consider.
For that reason, you must have a firm understanding of the evidentiary foundation for introducing your trial exhibits — well before you go to trial.
How can you learn more about the rules of evidence?
Again, we can't emphasize enough how important it is to learn rules of evidence long before you present your case at trial.
More and more parties are forced to represent themselves in court simply because they can't afford the substantial costs of hiring an attorney. If you don't want the opposing attorney to eat you alive at trial, you'd better understand evidence.
To help level the playing field, Legal Seagull has created HD video litigation tutorials that can help you learn important evidence law concepts so you can get your exhibits admitted into evidence at trial — and be your best advocate on your day in court.
Learn more about rules and concepts of evidence to help you get your trial exhibits admitted into evidence.
Learn more about trial basics, with video simulations that demonstrate how to introduce exhibits into evidence at trial.