Reconstructing a Crime Scene: Virtual Reality in Courtrooms

Virtual Reality is the latest buzz in the technological sphere, especially with the arrival of VR devices like headsets from giants like Facebook (Oculus Rift), Sony (PlayStation VR) and HTC (Vive). It is a relatively old concept (Aspen Movie Map was the first example, created by MIT in 1978) but with advancement in contemporary technologies, virtual reality has progressed by leaps and bounds in its effectiveness i.e. from being a mere 3-D image to an immersive and interactive system. Apart from its use in gaming and other entertainment purposes, it has been proposed to use this technology in another rather unexpected facet that of judicial proceedings.

Prior to the use of the technology it is important to analyse the concerns regarding the technology in question in a courtroom setting. The concerns are multifold: the manipulation of facts regarding the actual scene of crime/accident, time delay in court proceedings, cost of the expensive procedure and the possibility of manipulation of the trier of facts (judge/jury) i.e. inducing bias. While all of these are relevant questions regarding the use of virtual reality in courtrooms, each of the above concerns can be mitigated.

The problem repeatedly being raised in regard to VR i.e. the manipulation of facts is actually a factual misconception of what VR is capable of. Virtual reality is a computer generated 3-D interactive simulation, in simpler terms, it is a computer-generated environment which simulates some of our senses like vision and hearing to make the artificial environment seem real. The virtual environment, in this case, the scene of the crime/ accident is made by the computer, using 2-D images of the real-world place with minor adjustments by a technician in giving the architectural design the same aesthetics as that of the real-world place. In the case of a shooting, the area of impact and the trajectory of the bullets, or in the case of stabbing, the angle of wound and weapon penetration, are all put inside the simulation after gathering factual information from standard forensic tests. Hence, nothing in the simulation is the manifestation of a recollection from memory. The layout of the virtual crime scene can be checked using the photographs of the real crime scene for any inconsistencies, removing the question of manipulation of facts.

The issue of time delay can be also dealt with. Software like crime scene virtual tour  and IC-CRIME can create a virtual simulation from the 2-D images of the crime scene significantly faster. The cost concerns are very pragmatic issues keeping in mind the novelty of the technology and hence its expensiveness, it can be argued that the relatively wealthy party in a case might use its resources to use this technology while the other party could not afford to fight fire with fire. But, the facts of the scene remaining same for both, it should be the prerogative of the state to provide a virtual simulation to be used by both the parties. Also, with further improvement in technology the cost of using such technologies will go down, hence making it more accessible.  Countries like UK, USA and Switzerland have already granted funds for further research and use of this technology in courtrooms.

The concern regarding the introduction of bias can be nullified as virtual reality instead of inducing bias has been proven to show a reduction in bias in both jury and judges. Firstly, no trial is free of bias. Bias is “inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.” It is of two types – explicit and implicit. Every human possesses both the types, formed through an individual’s life experiences. The notion of a right to fair trial rests on the notion of a judge/jury being unbiased and hence capable of looking at evidences objectively. To further this notion, a process called voir dire, is performed to eliminate prospective jury members on the criteria of certain signs of bias shown by them i.e. explicit bias.

Since explicit bias manifests itself in our actions and is easy to root out, the problem lies with implicit bias as it rests in our sub-conscious and is very hard to notice. An individual may/ may not be aware of his/her own implicit biases. Studies have shown that an average American judge/jury form an implicit relation between black person and weapon and between a white person and innocence. Contemporary studies have shown that a black judge is more likely to give a harsher sentence to a white person than a black person and vice versa. From the results of these studies it can be reasonably said that the strong preference of white judges for white people and black judges for black people is based on a very fundamental emotion – empathy i.e. the ability to feel from another’s perspective.

Virtual Reality comes into play in such a situation by providing the very platform to see another man’s perspective. Studies by Prof. Mel Slater from University of Barcelona have shown that when people with implicit racial biases (tested from above studies) were put in virtual simulation and made to see a mirror reflecting an individual, different in race than the person in simulation (technically called bodyswapping); people showed reduced implicit biases and more empathy. Since bias and empathy cannot be rooted out of an individual, the next best thing that can be, is have a diversity of biases so that no one starts severely disadvantaged.

The role of empathy in a judicial decision is not a quantifiable one but its presence is an unmistakable one even though not explicitly expressed. Judges hesitate to show empathy towards any party because of the stigma; that any empathy from a judge in his professional capacity is a taboo and should not be condoned. Also, the more practical reason is that any exhibition of empathy might invite a strict scrutiny from the appellate courts and along with it bring the possibility of mar on their performance reviews.

But in reality, we need judges to be more empathetic so as to understand why people do certain things and assign corresponding sentences since the purpose of law is not just retribution but also rehabilitation of the convict back in the society. As much as we would like to think that the law is absolute and clear, it is not always so and there is much room for a judge’s discretion.

Apart from the problems and their subsequent solutions, to the use of virtual reality in courtroom discussed above; there are a few more advantages. Stanford studies have shown that virtual reality simulations can help us check the reliability of a witness’s testimony by trying out the simulation from the witness’s perspective. For example, if a witness testifies to see a particular crime happen standing somewhere far-away from the crime scene, it could be checked in the simulation if the witness had the line of sight to see the crime from where he said he was standing. It can also help preserve a crime scene in the virtual world when preserving it in real world is not possible, such as homicide on a busy street or an accident on a bridge.

It is evident from the studies conducted till now that the use of VR in modern-day courtrooms is quite plausible given the fact that it can help incline the human factor i.e. the implicit emotions, in a way that is beneficial for all. Moreover, the practical concerns can very much be mitigated with further research in the technology as it will become more adaptive and hence more efficient for courtroom purposes. The pros of using this technology in courtrooms do appear to outweigh any significant impediments that can be foreseen and hence more research and enforcement of such technology should be promoted in courtrooms around the world for faster and more effective disbursal of justice.

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