Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

Body of Evidence

Forensic animation would not appear at the top of a list of applications that push the edge of computer graphics technology. Compared to animated feature films, for example, scene-of-the-crime animations look primitive. But glossy production values and ultra-realism aren't necessary, and are even unwelcome in a venue that-in principle, at least-values dry facts over presentation.

Simple as forensic animations may appear, however, the issues surrounding them are anything but. On the plus side, a well-made animation can educate jurors quickly, enabling them to come to a verdict within hours rather than days. For this reason, and also because of the increased availability of processor power (which translates to speedier turnarounds), the use of forensic animation is on the rise. On the minus side, however, it remains a somewhat controversial technique.

Subjectivity, or the lack thereof, continues to be the main area of controversy surrounding forensic animation. For example, court and case law prohibits forensic animations from showing facial expressions, racial or ethnic characteristics, or death throes. The animation must be stripped to what is essential to the case and to what will stick in the minds of the jurors. But of course, selecting one sequence of events over another, or one viewing angle over another, is a subjective act. With computer animation, says Fred Galves, professor of law at McGeorge Law School, University of Pacific, in Sacramento, California, jurors tend to believe that "what they are seeing is more like a videotape of what actually happened instead of just a representation or a version of the facts according to your expert."

Galves argues, however, that all evidence is subjective. "Let's say you get a lawyer up there to give you his or her version of the facts. That is subjective but it's still acceptable." But a computer animation is subject to more exacting standards, he observes. "Then all of a sudden we need perfect scientific objectivity."
A virtual model of the home (now razed) of Cleveland osteopath Sam Sheppard was created 50 years after his wife's murder in 1954 for the most recent of the celebrated case's many follow-up trials. A familiarity with the exterior of the house and i

A secondary source of frustration to users of forensic animation is that even when technological advances are made, they are hard to track. Most such animations are never seen by more than a few lawyers and litigants. Pat Cleary, senior director of litigation services at Engineering Animation Inc. (EAI), estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the litigation animations in which the company is involved settle out of court. And settlements usually stipulate that terms be kept confidential.

Despite this low profile, however, and despite debate over its proper use, forensic animation is a thriving sector of computer graphics. According to Ted Gipstein, a Los Angeles lawyer and the author of Forensic Animation Evidence, there has been a large increase in this business, with some firms now doing hundreds of animations in a year. By comparison, when Jack Suchocki of Eyewitness Animations in Pompano Beach, Florida, prepared a forensic animation to demonstrate the details of a hit-and-run fatality in 1993, it was one of the first used in a criminal case. Since then, there has been a "maturation process in the legal industry" with regard to forensic animation, says Suchocki, enabling studios such as his to found whole businesses on forensic applications. The following examples show different ways in which independent studios, software vendors, and even government agencies have been creating and using forensic animations.

In 1954, following a highly publicized trial, Cleveland osteopath Sam Sheppard (whose story formed the basis for The Fugitive movie and TV shows) was jailed for the murder of his wife. In 1964, he was released from prison when a court determined that media coverage of the case had prevented a fair trial. Another trial found him not guilty in 1966. And most recently, Sheppard's son sued the state of Ohio last year, asking that it declare his father not only "not guilty," but innocent of charges.

For Dean Boland, the assistant prosecuting attorney for the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Prosecutor's Office during this trial, the challenge was two-fold: First, he had to help direct the creation of a 3D interactive walkthrough of the house from photos and police sketches, since the house where the murder occurred had been razed. And second, he had to convince the judge that this was a fair and accurate representation of the interior and exterior of the house. Knowledge of the house's layout was critical to the state's case, since the defense was suggesting that the Sheppard's window cleaner was the most likely murder suspect.
The inside of the Sheppard home was modeled for navigational purposes only. Human figures or bloodstains in the bedroom were omitted because such details might have unduly influenced the jury.

Initially, the lawyers for the plaintiff were skeptical about the use of the animation, says Boland, and the judge was worried that the film might "overwhelm the jury with its persuasiveness." For that reason, he explains, he was careful to make the animation as unsensational as possible-no blood spattered onto bedroom walls, for example, though it would have been evident following the murder.

Boland relied on an animation produced with his assistance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which used Alias| Wavefront's Maya to create the walkthrough of the house as it had been at the time of the murder in 1954. During the trial, Boland ran the application on an SGI 540 NT Visual Workstation.

"We showed jurors the path the window cleaner was supposed to have taken," says Boland, "through a basement window and then right by where Sheppard was supposed to be asleep-in a daybed at the foot of the stairs that led up to the bedroom." The animation then displayed the suspect coming down the stairs, passing the sleeping Sheppard yet again, and leaving through the front door. In Bo land's estimation, the walkthrough animation "showed just how ridiculous this theory was." (Verdict was passed in favor of the state of Ohio, though Sheppard, who died in 1970, was not redeclared guilty.)

A new trend for forensic animation technology involves patent and intellectual property trials, many of which center around biological manufacturing processes. Computer animation is particularly adept at communicating the difficult concepts underlying cases of intellectual property. Manipulating an object in three dimensions, using transparent skins to show inner workings, and demonstrating a product or process under different conditions are far more powerful than text and drawings.

In a recent patent-infringement case, Berlex Laboratories, a Wayne, New Jersey-based subsidiary of Schering A.G., charged that Biogen, a biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was using the former's patented process to produce Anovex, an interferon beta drug for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. The case required the creation of a complex 3D animation to show the biological manufacturing process. Creating that animation was Z-Axis Corp. of Greenwood, Colorado, a design firm specializing in CG demonstrative evidence for litigation. The final animation showed how Biogen's process was significantly different from Berlex's, and Biogen won in summary judgment after a one-day hearing. "We believe the animation was instrumental in the judge's decision," says Stephanie Kelso, vice president of Z-Axis, who also believes the animation helped speed the decision.

The same could be said about another famous case in which Z-Axis animations were instrumental-the trial in which Timothy McVeigh was charged with blowing up a federal office building in Oklahoma City. That trial, for which Z-Axis used a proprietary visual presentation system, including animations depicting the building's location and orientation as well as a floor-by-floor layout of the federal building, lasted one month rather than the six it was originally expected to entail.

Although the number of firms that take on forensic animation as all or part of their portfolio is on the rise, hiring animators with forensic training can be difficult, as it is not currently taught on a formal basis at colleges and universities.

Dena Winkleman and Bill Matthews, partners at LifeHouse Productions in Wallingford, Connecticut, partially prepared themselves for such a career when they earned Masters degrees in biomedical illustration. "We did cadaver dissection with med students," explains Winkleman. "And we took courses in histology, pathology, and physiology.

One of Winkleman's first forensic animation assignments, (prior to coming to LifeHouse), involved a murder case in which the defendant had been coerced into signing a confession. She created a 3D animation of the victim from photographs and from working with the medical examiner and coroners. The animation "blew holes in the confession," says Winkleman. "There was no way, judging from the angle and path of the bullet and where it lodged, that the defendant was guilty," she says.
Forensic animations are increasingly used for patent and intellectual property trials involving biological manufacturing processes.

Although forensic animation in the courtroom remains somewhat controversial, the application is definitely here to stay. It just needs to find its proper place. In addition to the aforementioned difficulty of subjectivity, another unresolved issue is price. Gipstein reports that forensic animations generally cost $3000 to $5000. "These are animations that win cases. If I was involved in a $50,000 car accident case, I would spend that much money on an animation." But of course, not everyone can afford that much, points out Galves.

And last, as the technology grows more familiar to all parties, it may lose some of its ability to swiftly convince juries and judges. Lawyers on the opposing side are quickly learning to pick apart the animations-questioning the data on which they are built, for example.

The best advice to animators and lawyers alike is to "use the technology sparingly," says Galves. "I think sometimes lawyers become so enraptured with the technology that they themselves are persuaded by it. Or they want to say, 'Hey, look at me. I'm on the cutting edge.'" In an environment where animations can prove more powerful than speeches and storyboards, a little goes a long way.

Steven Marks is a freelance writer based in New London, Connecticut.