A silent witness without bias: Laser scanning uncovers the truth in a complex use-of-force incident

In an era when misleading video evidence abounds, agencies need a source of truth that conveys objective data.

A silent witness without bias - laser scanning.

In today’s highly digital environment, video evidence is readily available from just about any scene. The proliferation of security cameras, bodycams, and personal mobile devices has led to a whole new way of investigating and prosecuting crimes relying on video as a silent witness and smoking gun. There’s just one problem with all this evidence: The limited perspective of video introduces bias.

Security footage can create false perspectives of distance and an inaccurate understanding of the actual events on scene. Lenses can be distorted. While those involved in a case can see what the camera captured, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are closer to the truth. A secondary witness is needed—one without bias that can convey objective data.

Laser scanning provides the ideal solution.

With precision and detail unattainable by traditional evidence collection, laser scanning offers a nuanced approach to gathering, analyzing, and presenting evidence. By combining laser scanning with photogrammetry and animation technology, public safety departments can create a digital twin crime scene that can be viewed from any angle. It can be used to measure the distance between any two points, and show a virtual replay of events from every perspective.

This capability has proven crucial in many crash and crime investigations, but especially in officer-involved shootings, where discovering the truth is imperative. In one especially complex use-of-force incident, laser scanning gave the jury an unprecedented ability to place themselves in the crime scene with a perspective that was key to uncovering the truth.

 

The case: A law enforcement officer indicted for murder

On March 30, 2021, Heather Howard, an attorney at Jessee Read & Howard, P.C., received a phone call. A local officer had been indicted for murder after fatally shooting the driver of a red Mustang in a motel parking lot. The officer had been responding to a 911 call, arriving at the location by 3:21 a.m. and discharging his weapon shortly after.

A CCTV surveillance video of the parking lot captured the shooting. The video showed the Mustang backing from its parking spot as it was surrounded by the officer who had been charged and three other armed police officers. After backing up, the vehicle accelerated toward the officer, who was positioned in front of the car. The officer fired his weapon before the vehicle veered away without hitting him, and the driver died from the gunshot wounds.

 A silent witness - laser scanning. Quote Dr. J. Frederick

"This case was all about one thing: the video. It would be easy for a savvy attorney to convince someone that this was indeed murder simply from playing that surveillance video."

The prosecutor claimed the CCTV footage was the silent witness that proved the officer fired at a vehicle that was not directly threatening his life.

Howard believed otherwise. She began searching for a tool that could ensure her client would receive a fair trial.

The investigation: Technology reveals the true story

Howard had CCTV footage, body camera recordings with audio, and a laser scanned point cloud of the entire scene captured by the Virginia State Police using a Leica Geosystems laser scanner. She brought Dr. Jeffrey Frederick, the president of Jeffrey Frederick Trial Consulting Services, LLC, onto her team to serve as a jury consultant.

“We decided to see how people similar to those who might serve as jurors would view the case,” said Dr. Frederick. “We put together a focus group and went through a presentation that included some of the video from the case. A large segment of the research subjects leaned toward the prosecution, either a lesser conviction or a first-degree conviction. So we knew we had a challenge, and we knew it was going to be difficult.”

 A silent witness - laser scanning. Quote Heather Howard

“Juries come in and they want to do the right thing, but we have to give them the tools to enable them to do that.”

Following the suggestions of digital forensics examiners, Heather engaged the forensic arts and animation experts at Visual Law. The firm specializes in applying laser scanning and other technology to capture and reconstruct collision and crime scenes in such complete 3D detail that attorneys, expert witnesses and juries can take accurate measurements, define lines of sight and reconstruct the events as they happened, all through a desktop, laptop or tablet device.

“The CCTV footage captures all the events from a static, silent viewpoint,” says Mark Johnson, Visual Law CEO. “In this particular case, watching the officer interact with this situation is much different being seen 100 feet away as opposed to being 3 feet from the front of the vehicle that was threatening his life. To convey that accurately, we needed to convert the laser scan data into a comprehensive, interactive scene.”

The trial: 3D Animations give the jury a complete perspective

Visual Law used the Leica laser scan data to create a 3D animation of the events immediately before and after the shooting. At the trial, Johnson testified to the court, explaining how the jury could use the tool. They would have access to a laptop to navigate the scene for themselves — with a few clicks, they could view the events from any perspective (like the officer’s sightline), take measurements between any two points (like the front of the Mustang and the officer’s gun at the moment of shooting), and replay the events at any speed.

“No one had to tell the jury what to see or believe,” says Howard. “They could independently inspect the scene, take measurements, and ascertain for themselves the exact distance between the officer and the front of the car.”

The tool allowed the jury to overcome the false sense of distance between officer and the car provided by the CCTV footage. When viewing the events from the officer’s perspective, the jury could see the hood of the car raised when it accelerated toward the officer. They could almost feel the tension through the rapid unfolding of events and realize the officer was so close to the vehicle that he would have been unable to see the direction that the front tires were pointing. This was information that would have been significantly more difficult to intuit from the CCTV video. 

 A silent witness - laser scanning. Quote Mark Johnson

"With the animation, you see what [the officer] saw. You're able to feel something akin to what he felt. And that is powerful. As a result of seeing it from that perspective, [the jury] reached a unanimous not guilty verdict.”

“At the point of muzzle flash, the Mustang is less than 3 and a half feet away from the officer,” says Johnson. “At its farthest distance, the Mustang is just over 6 feet away. All of the action is taking place in a tiny envelope of real estate where the officer is charged with defending himself and his fellow officers. This close-quarters action explains why the officer felt threatened and responded as he did.” 

Complementing the visual reconstruction, audio cues from the officers’ body cameras provided crucial context for the environment and the decision-making process of the police officers. The jury could hear that the shooting victim was actively ignoring the officer’s orders, adding to their understanding of the officer’s interpretation of the car accelerating toward him.

The verdict: Laser scanning empowers the pursuit of justice

After deliberating for less than two hours, the jury acquitted the law enforcement officer of all charges. During their deliberations, the jury’s only request was for access to the 3D animation, a testament to the tool’s power and efficacy. Understanding the small distances involved, the jury validated the officer’s claim that he had insufficient room to escape and that his use of deadly force was justified.

This case illuminates the transformative power of laser scanning technology in public safety and justice. The 3D animation and virtual crime scene reconstruction shifted the trial’s perspective from the limited viewpoint of a CCTV camera to a multi-faceted understanding of the incident.

The officer was acquitted, not because of a persuasive argument, but because the jury, equipped with an innovative tool, could understand the situation comprehensively.

By grasping the role of technology in providing comprehensive evidence, public safety departments can promote transparency, protect individuals from wrongful punishment, and ensure a fair, just legal process for all.

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