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Admission of Forensic Animation

It’s one of the most commonly asked questions regarding forensic animation: how do I know if a forensic animation will be admitted at trial?

As forensic animations gain popularity, more and more courts have had opportunity to review the issue. As they have, they’ve increasingly accepted them as valid forms of demonstrative evidence – given that certain guidelines are met.

So exactly what guidelines should an attorney considering the use of forensic animation follow? One case increasingly cited on the subject is Clark v Cantrell (529 S.E.2d 528, S.C. 2000), a South Carolina case in which the trial judge ruled that a forensic animation of a high-speed automobile accident was inadmissible as demonstrative evidence.

Claims had been made that the animation was inaccurate in its portrayal of the testimony of the eyewitnesses, as that it was also incorrect in its depiction of expert-witness opinions. The court eventually upheld the trial court decision that use of this particular forensic animation would have been inappropriate, and provided guidelines regarding admissibility of forensic animations as demonstrative evidence.

The guidelines offered a four-step test to assess the appropriateness of a forensic animation, and are being cited and adopted by courts throughout the nation.

Step One: Assess Authenticity

Before any forensic animation can be shown at trial, its proponent should establish authenticity. This is a fairly straightforward process, accomplished by "offering testimony from a witness familiar with the preparation of the animation and the data on which it is based." In Clark, as in most other cases, the requirement was met with testimony by the expert who prepared the underlying data. Although not usually necessary, the computer technician who created the animation also testified – a point that highlights the desirability of having a highly-qualified forensic animator work on a project, as opposed to someone with more generalized experience.

Step Two: Establish Relevance

Once a forensic animation has been established as an authentic piece of demonstrative evidence, the next step is to show relevance. In Clark, the court wrote that "an animation is relevant when it has a direct bearing upon and tends to establish or make more or less probable the matter in controversy." The most basic approach in most cases would be to show that a forensic animation is related to the testimony of witnesses

Step Three: Establish Accuracy

"Next, the animation must be a fair and accurate representation of the evidence to which it relates. It need not be exact in every detail, but the important elements must be identical or very similar to the scene as described in other testimony and evidence presented by the animation's proponent in order to constitute a fair and accurate representation. In an animation reconstructing a vehicle accident, for instance, the animation must be technically correct on details such as distance, terrain, relative speed, path of travel, and surroundings. The fact the animation is inconsistent with testimony or evidence presented by the opposing party should not necessarily lead to its exclusion, provided it fairly and accurately portrays the proponent's version of events." In Clark, the court ruled that the animation was properly excluded, stating that "…it did not accurately reflect the testimony of the proponent and her expert witness."

Step Four: Establish Probative Value

In order for a forensic animation to be admissible, its probative value must "…substantially outweigh the danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, or misleading the jury..." Given that such assessments are largely a matter of judicial discretion, a forensic animation should strive to be as conservative as possible in its depictions of potentially emotionally-charged events.


Additional Guidelines
From Clark v Cantrell

Disclosure

“To ensure that the opposing party has sufficient time to analyze the animation, the trial court also should consider whether the proponent disclosed the animation and underlying data within a reasonable period of time before trial.”

“Untimely disclosure should not, standing alone, necessarily result in exclusion of the animation. But late disclosure may prevent the opposing party from adequately attempting to explain why the animation is not a fair and accurate representation which, in turn, may prompt the court to conclude its probative value does not substantially outweigh the danger of unfair prejudice.”

Jury Instructions

“We also encourage the trial court to give a cautionary instruction that the animation represents only a re-creation of the proponent's version of the event; it should in no way be viewed as the absolute truth; and, like all evidence, it may be accepted or rejected in whole or in part. The court may wish to call attention to any assumptions upon which the animation is based, as well as any other particular facts that warrant a cautionary instruction.”


About the Author: Steven P. Breaux is a forensic animator and principal at Perceptual Motion, a Gig Harbor, WA firm specializing in the production of forensic animations for use in illustrating the opinions and testimony of expert witnesses in complex litigation. He has authored articles published by numerous legal journals, and has also developed presentations for attorneys on the subject of forensic animation; moderated the panel discussion on forensic animation at the 13th Triennial Meeting of the International Association of Forensic Sciences at U.C.L.A. in 1999; and appeared as an on-air guest of National Public Radio. He can be reached for comment at (253) 265-3577 or by email.