Crime Seen


forensic_0040It’s 2:30 pm on the fourth day of Michael Serge’s murder trial. In a wood-paneled room of the county court house in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Judge Terrance Nealon gives the jury a brief speech on the difference between art and fact, then motions for the prosecution to begin.

At the back of the courtroom, a crowd of onlookers from the local legal community crane their necks as a technician cues up a 72-second video. It’s an animated re-creation of Serge, a retired police detective, shooting and killing his wife of 35 years, Jennifer. The picture appears on a 5-foot screen positioned near the jury box.

The family’s living room comes into focus around Serge’s wife, realistically rendered with sandy-blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and wearing animal-print pajamas. Serge appears, gun in hand. What follows is a second-by-second breakdown of the three shots he’s alleged to have fired. First, a bright blue line extends from Serge’s gun, leaving behind a frozen rope of red. The blue passes through Jennifer’s lower torso and into a stereo cabinet. Next, Serge fires into the wall. In a dramatic ending, he again takes aim at his wife, who is crouched on the floor. The shot pierces her from right arm to left rib in deadly cartoon green. The screen goes black.

Serge, 55, blinks at the digital image of himself. His son, seated behind him in the courtroom, weeps silently. Jennifer’s sister clutches a cardboard-backed photograph of herself with the victim. Standing with the spectators is Paul Walker, a local defense attorney, who marvels at the effectiveness of the animation. Walker has worked either with or against most of the lawyers present and happens to be a close friend of the victim’s brother. But today, like so many others, he’s here just to watch. “I’ve seen a lot of photos of people lying bloody on the ground,” he says later. “But when I saw the animation, it was eerie. If a coroner says the victim had a posterior entrance wound, that doesn’t mean anything to a jury. When you see her shot in the back and then down on her knees, that brings it to life.”

What the jury saw is known as forensic animation – the computerized illustration of events recounted by courtroom testimony (in this case, the coroner’s report and the state trooper’s on-scene analysis). It’s the newest in a chain of technologies – from lie-detector tests to handwriting analysis and DNA sampling – that is transforming the world of litigation. And while it’s nothing more than pixels on a monitor, this legal tool is proving remarkably effective.

David Golomb, a Manhattan attorney who has served as president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, calls it “devastating evidence,” saying, “If you have a good animation, it’s such a difficult thing for the other side to fight.”

The first animation was presented to a Bronx jury in a 1984 auto accident case. It was crudely done, with block graphics on an Apple II. Eight years later, the technique was employed in a high-profile criminal trial for the first time and helped convict San Francisco porn king Jim Mitchell of murdering his brother. Over the past decade, as computing power has grown faster and cheaper, forensic animation – used to illustrate everything from baby shakings to product malfunctions – has become increasingly common.

In an age when the courts are clogged with litigation, the acceptance of forensic animation reflects more than the need to find the truth. Judges seem eager to admit any valid evidence that can shorten the duration of a trial. In barely a minute, the jury comes away with information that would otherwise require two days of overwrought oratory. “This is a video country,” Golomb explains. “People are used to getting information from the television.” In the half-dozen cases in which he has used computer animation, opposing counsel settled almost immediately.

The new procedure has spawned a thriving industry worth about $30 million annually. There are some 100 firms around the country that specialize in forensic animation, not to mention countless studios that create films as well as provide other types of litigation consulting – among the biggest: Engineering Animation, Decision Quest, and Animators at Law.

To make the video as realistic as possible, the animators begin with raw data culled from the site by accident reconstructionists. To get a digital representation of the crime scene, they sometimes use laser-transit survey devices to shoot beams over every inch of the area. “We present everything to one-thirtieth of a second on an x, y, and z axis,” says Andre Stuart, CEO of 21st Century Forensic Animation, the company that produced the clip in the Serge case. Then, relying on supplementary data such as photographs, ballistics information, and a coroner’s report, they fill in the holes and craft a narrative.

A 3-D animation of even the simplest two-vehicle accident, produced using the fairly unsophisticated CAD program 3D StudioMax, will cost a client no less than $5,000, Stuart estimates. High-end work can climb to as much as $180,000. But even then, this isn’t your glossy Hollywood production. Frequently, 21st Century assembles its worlds using libraries of mix-and-match premodeled people, vehicles, and furniture. The company has roughly 25 cases on its docket, and since its inception in 1989 more than 400 clients have retained its services, among them Johnnie Cochran. Cochran hired Stuart’s firm in two high-profile cases: Anthony Dwain Lee, the young African-American actor who was shot to death by a Los Angeles police officer in 2000, and Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant who was killed in 1999 by plainclothes New York cops.

For all of its impact on judges and juries, forensic animation borders on pseudoscience. Consider a typical auto accident. Skid marks, paint samples, and scattered glass yield reliable and scientifically acceptable computer images. Still, much of the moviemaking process comes down to guesswork. How hard did the driver brake? How foggy was the road? As a result, the quest for accuracy is sometimes compromised. Lawyers will often act as executive producers, overseeing the making of the film and calling for changes – in visual tone, for instance – where they believe it may help the case. By changing a single camera angle, Golomb claims he won a multimillion-dollar settlement in a car crash.

Critics have argued that forensic animation is more prejudicial than illuminating – that it possesses an unjustified ring of truth and may cause jurors to overlook other evidence. Serge’s attorney, Joseph D’Andrea, scorned the animation, calling it a cartoon and demanding it be excluded from the trial. He feared its cause-and-effect starkness would inalterably cast his client as a murderer. But Judge Nealon chose to admit it, writing that “an animated exhibit should not be regarded as unfairly prejudicial merely because it enables a party to demonstrate a point more effectively.”

The prosecution’s decision to commission an animation in such an open-and-shut case had more to do with defining the future than with winning. As the first animation ever admitted into criminal trial in Pennsylvania, it sets a powerful precedent. “We’re not known for being trailblazers around here,” says Jennifer Henn, a staff reporter for the localScranton Times. “It’s amazing the judge allowed the animation in.”

Back in the courtroom, the prosecution rests. Walking to his hotel, Randy Matzkanin, a mechanical engineer who managed the animation team behind the Serge case, admits he was nervous at the trial. During a recess the previous day, Matzkanin learned he and a state trooper – the DA’s key witness – had miscommunicated about a detail concerning the arrangement of the body in the room. As a result, the video was flawed. “It wasn’t inaccurate, strictly speaking,” Matzkanin points out, “but it should have been done differently.”

A few days later, the jury deliberates for less than two hours before convicting Michael Serge of first-degree murder. Thirty minutes after that, he’s sentenced to life in prison without parole.