It does not seem like all that many years ago, that forensic computer animation was a novelty in the courtroom. In the 1990’s, improvements in technology made computer animation more widely available, and since that time technology and quality have improved dramatically while the cost of preparing an animation has dropped.
Although it’s no longer a novelty to submit computer animation as evidence or as a demonstrative aid in court, there remain some basic issues that should be considered when preparing animation for courtroom use.
Forensic computer animation is form of demonstrative evidence that can be used to visually recreate an accident or event. A forensic computer animation may depict an expert witness’s opinion as to how the event or accident occurred, or it may attempt to objectively depict the occurrence.
Although computer animation is no longer a novelty, it remains a powerful courtroom tool, as an animated visual depiction can be highly persuasive to a jury. It is thus important to consider how you will lay a foundation for the admission of forensic animation, and how the evidence will be used in court.
Preparing to Use Forensic Animation
Consider how you will introduce your animation in court.
If you intend to introduce your animation through a lay witness, you should anticipate objections about the data and assumptions that are relied upon in the creation of the animation. For example, your lay witness may be able to testify that the depiction reasonably represents what he or she observed, but may not be in a good position to verify points of data, such as the placement of objects in the video, or the accuracy of elements of the video that would have been outside of the scope of their perception.
Expert Witnesses and Forensic Animation
If you retain an expert witness who will present a computer animation in court, you need to be certain to follow the court’s scheduling order for disclosing the expert, and any reports or visual aids that will later be relied upon by the expert, as well as complying with discovery in relation to the expert. Otherwise, you may find that the opposing party is able to successfully object to the expert’s use of the animation in court.
Fact vs. Opinion
In most situations you will want to present a computer forensic animation as the opinion of your witness, not as a factually certain reconstruction. After all, once your expert witness is qualified, your expert may give opinion testimony.
In contrast, the other party is almost certain to object to facts and assumptions that are a necessary part of any visual or animated reconstruction and, if presented as more than opinion, small differences in fact could keep the animation from being viewed or considered by a jury.
Exhibits vs. Demonstrative Aids
Consider whether you will present the animation as an exhibit or as a demonstrative aid.
While it may be tempting to have the animation admitted as an exhibit that can be reviewed by the jury during deliberations, you can expect a lot less resistance to its use as a visual expression of your expert’s opinion that is used to support the expert’s testimony.
Another important factor in the preparation of a forensic computer animation is that the opposing party may object that the animation is more prejudicial than probative, meaning that it has more potential to mislead or prejudice a jury than to help the jury better understand the case. As a consequence, although computer animation can be highly photorealistic, it is usually best to avoid making the animation appear too realistic.
- If the animation depicts injuries, it should avoid or minimized the depiction of blood and gore.
- People should normally be depicted more like mannequins as opposed to realistically.
- The animation should not incorporate narration or editorialize, and should normally be prepared without any soundtrack or sound effects.
- The animation should not come across like an action film, with sudden cuts and dramatic views, but should instead allow a viewer to clearly follow the event from start to finish.
Simplicity can aid with admissibility, by minimizing both the elements of the animation that may be seen as inflammatory or unduly prejudicial, and by reducing the number of visual elements and data points to which opposing counsel might object.
If you are planning to use forensic computer animation in court, you need to consider how you will lay a foundation for its admissibility.
Even if you retain an expert witness who has prepared the animation in-house, there is a significant chance that much or all of the animation work was performed by somebody else within the expert’s firm, or even that the animation work was outsourced.
Laying a Foundation
Your witness must be able to lay a basic foundation for the admission of the animation. That means establishing that the animation is authentic, relevant, accurate, and has probative value.
- In some cases, the animation and the underlying facts may be simple enough to be admitted through a lay witness, as with a photograph that a witness can testify is consistent with how the scene appeared at the time of an incident.
- In other cases it may be necessary to introduce one or more additional witnesses to help lay the foundation for the animation.
The more the animation veers toward opinion, the more necessary it becomes to use an expert witness to introduce and explain the animation in court.
You should be prepared to submit testimony about the qualifications, credentials and experience of every person who was involved in the creation of the animation, and your own expert’s role in supervising the process of its creation or verifying its accuracy.
As with any audio-visual evidence, you need to verify in advance that the courtroom has the necessary equipment in place to play back your animation, and make sure that your video is compatible with the courtroom’s systems.
Take the opportunity to test playback in advance of your hearing date as, even when systems should be compatible or have worked in the past, technological problems may arise.