One of the biggest concerns for lawyers when embarking on a forensic animation is whether or not they will be admitted into a court of law. There have been several cases where an animation was rejected by a court due to it being highly prejudicial or inaccurate in its display of events, however today, it is quite rare to hear about an animation which has not been accepted in court. This raises the possibility that either courts have become more accepting of animations or more forensic animators are adhering to the admissibility guidelines for demonstrative evidence (or both).
Below is a set of questions that an attorney should ask about the preparation of a forensic animation. These questions should always be addressed when opting to enter a forensic animation as demonstrative evidence. Failing to adhere to one or more of these rules may not immediately mean an animation will be rejected, however it does increase the likelihood that the animation will be thrown out or the weight of evidence will be respectively applied.
1. How is the forensic animation relevant to the case?
Relevance is a key factor to getting a forensic animation entered into a court of law. There should be a clear objective for the animation as it can help to drive home a key point or demonstrate the timing of an event that could otherwise be difficult to do in words alone. Often, it is important to get a witness to testify that the animation is a good representation of what occurred or in the case of an expert witness, that the animation can better communicate the written testimony/report of the expert witness.
2. Who actually prepared the forensic animation? Is the evidence produced from a reliable source?
A forensic animation may be prepared by one person or several persons in a company. In every case, it is imperative to understand the qualifications of those who actually created the animation. Today, it is still very common to have a dedicated forensic animator who may or may not work in direct contact with the expert witness. In each case, the role of the expert witness in preparing and reviewing the animation should be confirmed in order to establish authenticity.
The software, process and methods used to create the forensic animation should be discussed. Depending on what is being demonstrated, there could be experimental or new techniques used which may not be verifiable.
3. Does the forensic animations’ probative value outweigh the risk of prejudice? Does it aid the trier of fact in the search for truth?
One must always consider the impact that an animation may have on the jury. For example, many times, the events leading up to a traffic collision are the most important to understand. The subsequent impact and following events are a result of what happened prior to impact. Therefore, it is often only necessary to demonstrate the events leading up to impact. It may not be necessary to show how vehicle occupants were injured since it may not be a point of dispute.
Of course, there are different approaches in the legal community as to the level of graphic detail that is necessary in a forensic animation. Sometimes it is a result of being the prosecution or defense and what will prompt the “best” response from a jury. However, the best advice is to stick to the facts and do not be overzealous in the display of gore and special effects. Having a realistic forensic animation that is visually appealing is certainly acceptable, however, “hyper-real” graphics are not.
Also, when presenting a forensic animation in court, there should not be any sound or editorial comments other than the usual titles and descriptors.
4. What was used as the basis of the animation and how can it be verified for accuracy? Did someone check the data? Was the data entered correctly?
The accuracy of a forensic animation is critical since inaccuracies can lead to the animation being inadmissible in court. There should be substantial data for the placement and position of objects in a scene. For example, if a crime had taken place in a room, there should be sufficient data available to recreate the room as a 3D model to the same dimensions, scale and environment. This may be based on photos, total station measurement data, witness testimony or subsequent visits to the scene.
Verification of the forensic animation data is also very important to establishing accuracy. The animator should be able to prove that the animation is based on data, reports and testimony provided to him. Also, the supplied data should be independently admissible. The forensic animation should be shown to be in agreement with witness or expert witness testimony. In many cases, the witness or expert witness is required to be a vital part of the verification process. There is very little room for the animator to be creative and “add” his own interpretation of events as this leads to inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
5. Has the animation been prepared in time to allow for adequate disclosure?
The other side needs an opportunity to evaluate the forensic animation and respond accordingly. And although it may seem obvious, the animation must be completed prior to trial. Ensure that the animator has ample time to prepare, verify and then package the animation such that it can be served in advance of the due date. Edits, changes, different scenarios and additional work need to be taken into consideration for the delivery.
As more forensic animations make their way into the courtroom, it may cause some to take liberties with the admissibility guidelines. In fact, the pendulum seems to have swung the other way and there have been a variety of animations that often push the limits of these guidelines. Each case has its own set of conditions and there may be cases where the guidelines are bent. Nonetheless, a strong case also needs strong evidence that adheres to some of the fundamental principles of demonstrative evidence.