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March 12, 2007

Demonstrative Animation


In an article which appeared in the February 19, 2007 Richmond Times-Dispatch, Doug Childers wrote about a Richmond-based company called CrossPlatform DeSign which creates computer-generated animations of crime scenes for presentation in court.

A still from one of the company's videos appears up top.

The field is relatively young (company founder Jeffrey C. Taylor started his business in 1999) but is likely to explode in coming years as courtrooms upgrade their technology and the cost of computing continues to decline.

Here's the story.

    Demonstrative Animation

    The video is disturbing, even without sound.

    As it begins, a police officer chases a man across a dark parking lot.

    The man jumps into the back seat of a sport utility vehicle, and the driver of the SUV turns it around to face the police officer. The police officer retreats to an unmarked police car. Moments later, the police officer and his partner step out to confront the SUV with their guns drawn. The SUV surges toward them. As he leaps out of the way, one of the police officers fires shots at the SUV's driver as it passes.

    It looks like the working file of an expensive, computer-generated sequence in a Hollywood movie. In fact, it's a demonstrative animation created to help illuminate a key moment in a criminal case now pending in Atlanta.

    The incident took place in 2002. The man driving the SUV was suspected of breaking into cars. The shooter was an Atlanta police officer, who is now facing murder charges in the shooting of the driver.

    "They just finished the hearing," said Jeffrey C. Taylor, whose company, CrossPlatform DeSign, made the animation video for the lawyers representing the police officer. "The judge has not ruled on whether to go forward with the matter."

    The Atlanta case is one of more than a dozen on which Taylor has worked since starting Richmond-based CrossPlatform DeSign in 1999. In addition to the police-shooting case in Atlanta, Taylor is working on an excessive-force case involving a police officer in Connecticut.

    As Taylor points out, demonstrative animation differs from accident reconstructions, which are based on scientific data.

    "It's very hard to get an accident reconstruction into court because it can be heavily scrutinized, and most judges in Virginia won't allow it in court," Taylor said. "By contrast, demonstrative animation is simply a tutorial tool because it demonstrates testimony."

    Before creating demonstrative animation movies, Taylor conducts interviews and peruses evidence gathered in the case. As long as the demonstrative animation is substantially similar to the witness's testimony, it's admissible in court.

    The technical elements of the animation are impressive. The computer software Taylor uses to create virtual environments is sophisticated enough to put in shadows and ambient lighting.

    "Basically, it's the same software Hollywood uses for special effects," he said. "I work with animators from across the world."

    The cost for most of the animations that Taylor's company produces starts between $7,000 and $15,000. "But it's based on the length of the animation and its details, and whether or not I'm called in as an expert in the field of demonstrative animation," he said.

    Today, demonstrative animation is in its infancy. Although a few companies are creating accident reconstructions for courtroom use, "I'm the only one I know of doing this type of work" as a communication art, Taylor said.

    In fact, Taylor may have developed the first demonstrative animation used in a Virginia courtroom. The video illustrated the testimony provided by David Melvin, a Richmond police officer charged with second-degree murder.

    Melvin said in court that he shot Verlon Johnson, an unarmed robbery suspect, because he believed Johnson was pulling a gun from his pants pocket.

    Taylor interviewed Melvin and used that information along with witness statements and data collected at the scene of the shooting to create the animation video that was shown during Melvin's three criminal trials.

    After two mistrials, Melvin was acquitted in 2004.

    "I have a 100 percent win ratio in criminal cases I've worked with," Taylor said.

    In addition to working on criminal cases, Taylor has worked with trial lawyers on civil cases, including one that yielded a favorable $1.8 million verdict. In that case, the Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen law firm hired CrossPlatform DeSign to develop an animation to accompany testimony offered by medical experts.

    Malcolm P. McConnell III, the lawyer who hired Taylor to develop the animation, said Taylor's work played an important role in winning the case.

    "It's very important that concepts you're attempting to explain to the jury be explained in such a way that they can understand them and remember them some days later when they have to decide the case," McConnell said. "It's an explanation, and it's memorable. These trials tend to last several days, and I think it's important that the jury understand the case early. If you just talk, they won't retain it."

    A study conducted by the American Bar Association underlines the importance of memory prompts such as demonstrative animation in courtroom settings. It found that the use of visuals during a trial increases juror memory retention by 600 percent as opposed to a verbal argument alone.

    While CrossPlatform DeSign is a pioneer, Taylor expects to see demonstrative animation show up more often in courts as courtrooms upgrade their technology.

    McConnell agrees. "I predict that it will grow, particularly as it grows less expensive to develop."

March 12, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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In response to the above comment. Demonstrative animation as it applies to the law only seeks to demonstrate the witnesses opinion of what occured and environmental factors. When a jury has to make a decision on whether or not a defendants actions were reasonable it is very important to be able to place a jury or judge in the place of the accused.

Forensic evidence will support or empeach an animation and its validity. Any trial lawyer would immediately attack any inconsist facts and use the animation against the defendant. Therefore, the demonstrative animation must be highly accurate and reasonble to believe.

Jeffrey Taylor
Expert - Demonstrative Animation

Posted by: Jeff Taylor | Apr 15, 2007 9:18:45 PM

"A study conducted by the American Bar Association underlines the importance of memory prompts such as demonstrative animation in courtroom settings. It found that the use of visuals during a trial increases juror memory retention by 600 percent as opposed to a verbal argument alone."

True, but of course it presupposes that what the animation shows is the truth. It can't possibly show all the details and background, and it's only built on people's memories of the event, which have been shown time and time again to be very unreliable - you've even run a piece of this yourself.

Now - with verbal descriptions and perhaps even artist's impressions jurors can be expected to be aware of this failing. When you start animating it, what is at best an questionable source of information accquires a veneer of authenticity which in all probability it doesn't deserve. Making it more real makes it more powerful and more memorable but it doesn't make it more reliable.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Mar 15, 2007 4:33:09 AM

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