Forensic Animation: Turning a Critical Eye Towards Admissibility

Forensic animation is seeing increased use to portray a variety of situations, from accident reconstruction to patent infringement to crime-scene depictions. And even though there are well-established guidelines for the admissibility of such exhibits at trial, such as those laid out in Clark v Cantrell (529 S.E.2d 528, S.C. 2000), courts frequently reject the use of animations that fail to measure up.

There are a number of reasons for such animations being rejected by courts, as cases from throughout the country illustrate. Using these as examples, the knowledgeable trial attorney can troubleshoot the production of a forensic animation with an eye toward assessing admissibility at trial.

What's the Source?

Prudent attorneys will take the time to research the source of a forensic animation presented at trial. Rather than simply allowing a sponsoring expert to vouch for the accuracy and authenticity of a forensic animation, most courts will allow examination of the underlying data used to create a forensic animation, as well as those persons responsible for the actual production of the animation.

In Cox v State of Mississippi (849 So. 2d 1257, Miss. 2003), the State asserted that the circuit court erred in admitting a computer-generated animation. The circuit court had ordered Cox to "provide full and complete disclosure of any and all underlying data and scientific principles" and that such disclosure "must include but is not limited to the mathematics, physics, programming, hardware or software and any supporting documentation or studies used to create or support the animation."

In response, Cox named an individual who assisted the sponsoring expert witness in the generation of the animation, but provided no further information about the individual. The State noted that Cox's response simply named an individual, as well as a list of various software programs without any accompanying explanation of their application. The computer animator was never named as a potential defense witness, and never provided any form of signed written report. The response failed to outline specific, scientific data including measurements used to create the animation, and no one ever testified to the mathematical data used to create the animation.

Citing cases such as Pierce v. State, 718 So. 2d 806 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997), Clark v Cantrell, 529 S.E.2d 528 (S.C. 2000) and State v Farner, 66 S.W.3d 188 (Tenn. 2001) the Supreme Court of Mississippi agreed with the State's argument.

Who's the Expert Here?

In accident reconstruction cases, forensic animations are generally used as demonstrative exhibits to illustrate the findings of a qualified expert witness. In such cases, testimony of an accident reconstruction expert provides the foundation for an animation. Usually, the testimony of the expert that their data was used in the production of the animation, and that the animation accurately illustrates their opinion of what happened, is sufficient to satisfy the foundational and authenticity requirements for a forensic animation.

In some cases, however, the foundational data upon which the animation is based comes from dubious sources, making identification of everyone involved in the production of a forensic animation crucial. In the Tennessee case of State v Farner (66 S.W.3d 188, Tenn. 2001), a police officer investigating a fatal street-racing accident provided his accident report and photographs to a professor from the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at East Tennessee State University. The professor produced an animation of the accident, and although he was not a qualified expert witness in the field of accident reconstruction, he took it upon himself to include elements in the animation that were either not in the accident report or actually contradicted the physical evidence - including vehicle positions and speeds. During an appeal, the Supreme Court of Tennessee decided that the animation should not have been admitted, since it was "based upon inaccurate and incomplete information."

Just Plain Wrong!

Sometimes an animation is so poorly produced that the elements being shown are completely incorrect, violating a common requirement that a forensic animation be an accurate representation of the evidence to which it relates. In the South Dakota case of Sommervold v Grevlos (518 N.W.2d 733, 738 S.D. 1994), an animation showed a collision between two bicyclists. Among other elements, the animation showed an incorrect collision location, improper illumination of the nighttime scene, and portrayed the injuries to the riders as being left-side to left-side when they were actually right-side to right-side. An appeals court ruled that the trial court exercised proper discretion in excluding the computer animation.

Assessment of Forensic Animations

While there is an extensive record of court rulings concerning the admissibility of forensic animations, the examples above illustrate that there are practical elements to consider when critiquing a forensic animation. Most courts review forensic animations for authenticity, relevance, accuracy and probative value only when challenged at trial, and often only superficially. Whether an attorney is presenting or challenging a forensic animation, they should be far more critical than is usually the case.

Copyright © 2004 Steven P. Breaux, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Nov 6, 2014.