Taking a jury to the scene of a crime could change the court system and the way evidence is presented.
Lawyers spend hours during trials describing in meticulous detail what occurred during a crime, in the hope of painting a favourable picture in the heads of a judge or jury. To this end, they allocate a lot of time preparing testimonies, photographs, video footage and other documents.What if virtual reality could take those people, on whose judgement fates are decided, back to the crime scene? Lars Ebert from the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland, thinks it could help juries make more accurate choices. Last year, Ebert and colleagues from the university produced a paper and video examining the use of 3D reconstructions for the courtroom.
The Swiss researchers programmed information about one particular shooting into the software for the Oculus Rift gaming device. From this, they created a 3D reconstruction of the scene which included bullet trajectory and featured characters with the correct height, arm-length and posture, but without clearly identifiable features.
The visual information came from security camera footage from the real crime scene and laser-scans of room measurements. Investigators already use 3D laser scanners to create panoramic digital snapshots of crime scenes in minutes, and CT scanners to provide detailed pictures of injuries.
Ebert explains that VR reconstructions provide more precise details from which opinions can be formed and courtroom judgements made. He believes that VR works because it presents events in 3D, tracks movement and enables juries to experience another person’s line of sight, which could be essential in assessing witness testimony. “Those watching don’t have to imagine what might have happened,” he says.
In Switzerland, this technology could be used by judges and state attorneys to do the pre-trial fact-finding. Elsewhere in the future, defence or prosecution lawyers could use it to admit a 3D reconstruction of their client’s view of events, based on witness statements.
“If prosecutors used this, the defence would want to know how the data has been gathered to feed the VR machine,” says Professor Peter Sommer, a digital forensics expert. “Defence would ask whether the data is sufficiently complete to create the virtual picture, if any of it is based on interpretation, or influenced by the unconscious bias of those who put the reconstruction together.”
Professor Sommer adds: “Reconstructions could be very vivid and create a strong impression. This could mislead a jury if information is not complete.”