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COLUMN ONE : Jury Out on High-Tech Courtroom : Computer animation, televised testimony and other innovations could streamline the justice system. But they also raise fairness questions and worries about abuse.

December 17, 1993|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the simple cartoon begins, a sleeping figure resembling a crash dummy is seen from above, lying in bed. The man suddenly awakens as the first of eight gunshots is fired in his direction. Walking down a corridor, the gray figure is hit by shots in the arm, the chest and finally the head. He crumples and falls to the floor.

The three-minute color segment may not win any awards as entertainment. But this computer-generated animation was enough to help convict Bay Area adult theater operator Jim Mitchell of killing his brother and partner, Artie, in 1992--the first time in California that such technology was admitted as evidence in a criminal case.

Such computer-generated animation is the leading edge of technology that may transform the nation's court system. Some say it promises to improve the quality of justice by allowing attorneys to more clearly make their arguments to jurors who are frequently confused by conflicting eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence.

At the same time, other high-tech innovations hold out the prospect of clearing the clogged arteries of the court system, reducing delays and paying for themselves in efficiencies along the way.

Among these advances are televised witness testimony that can span oceans; televised court appearances from jail studios, and electronic filing and retrieval of court documents.

Some judges believe that if all the existing technologies were used in one courtroom, they could cut the time of a trial in half.

But with this promise comes peril, critics say. Jurists and law professors point out these costly technologies bring profound practical and philosophical questions about fairness, the role of the jury and the sanctity of constitutional guarantees.

Not to mention the danger of technological manipulation. Alexander Jason, the Marin County ballistics expert who produced the Mitchell animation for the prosecution, admits the producer's power verges on omnipotence.

"I'm God in this situation," he said.

Not exactly. Judges have ruled that the animations may be admitted into evidence only when they are created to illustrate eyewitness testimony or the testimony of forensic experts attempting to recreate a murder scene.

Judges in murder cases in California, New Jersey and New York have allowed use of animations, but only after court-ordered modifications--in effect editing of the tapes before jurors saw them.

The high cost of producing the animations--which start at $10,000--is particularly vexing to some judges and lawyers reluctant to use them.

It is not uncommon in civil cases--where less sophisticated computer-generated animations have been used in Detroit, Chicago, Dallas and other cities over the past decade--to see a great disparity in resources between opposing sides, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow. But the latest advances in technology may give the side with the most money a decisive--and thus unfair--advantage with juries, he said.

"I have a personal fear that we may get to the point that everyone must walk in with their own (computer-generated) videotape," said Chernow, who presides over family and civil cases. "I worry about whether. . . we're pricing people out of the system."

Using the animations in criminal trials, where defendants' freedom and sometimes lives are on the line, only raises the stakes.

After Mitchell was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, his attorneys appealed the verdict, asking California's 1st District Court of Appeal to decide whether Marin County prosecutors used the animation fairly.

Mitchell, 49, was accused of first-degree murder in the shooting of his younger brother in Artie Mitchell's home. The sound of some of the gunshots was captured on a 911 tape made while Artie Mitchell's girlfriend huddled in a closet, talking by telephone to a police dispatcher.

The prosecution's animation was based on the 911 tape, the opinions of acoustics and ballistics experts, the position of Artie Mitchell's body, and bloodstains.

But the initial videotape also incorporated critical information for which there was neither eyewitness testimony nor forensic evidence: Whether a beer bottle Artie Mitchell carried as he walked down a darkened hallway was pointed like a pistol, and whether he assumed a shooting position with the bottle just before his brother fired at him. At the request of the defense, the bottle was edited out.

"I think we're going to see more and more use of manipulation," said Mary Dodge, a graduate student at UC Irvine who is researching the impact of computer animation on jurors. "I see animators trying to introduce more than just straight facts."

Mitchell's attorneys are challenging his conviction in a closely watched appeal. They claim in part that the simulation should not have been admitted as evidence because the computer re-creation was based on inaccurate and misleading information from the 911 tape, ballistics and forensic evidence.

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