Illinois State Police Home Illinois State Police Brendan F. Kelly, Director
Brendan F.

Governor JB Pritzker

Agency Links

ISP Fallen Officers Memorial
Agencies, Boards & Commissions
Illinois Amber Alert
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Inspector General
Illinois Department of Human Rights
Cutting the Red Tape

  Law Enforcement Technology Article - September 2003  

diagonal image

Animation takes a forensic twist

Printer Friendly Version
by Jennifer Mertens  

Exclamations of amazement ushered through the room as Chicago fire lieutenant Scott Gillen was shown being struck by Carlando Hurt's vehicle, says crash reconstructionist Michael O'Hern.

Five times the victim's family, as well as a judge, jury and entire courtroom saw Hurt's red Oldsmobile attempt to pass a semi, unaware that Gillen was positioned just around the large rig.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," says O’Hern. "But, a movie, which is basically what this is, will show what you're trying to say and explain a lot of questions." This wasn’t a big screen movie, but instead, a forensic animation presented during the trial of Hurt in the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Court.

Forensic animation is an art that, in the past decade, has expanded tremendously in the world of civil suits, as well as in the world of law enforcement and criminal cases. Animations are "an illustration of an expert's testimony," says Sgt. Francisco Carrera of the Illinois State Police. They can be used to portray anything — from a building construction to vehicular accidents to homicides.

However, their purpose is the same: "to demonstrate better than any other way the important point you’re trying to get across to the jury," says Steven Breaux, animator and owner of Perceptual Motion located in Gig Harbor, Washington.

"If the situation is very hard to understand or envision, it helps give the jury the image you want them to see, instead of explaining it to them and hoping they’ll get the vision or they all get the same vision," he adds.

forensic animation sequence #1 of vehicle path by Illinois State Police forensic animation sequence #2 of vehicle path by Illinois State Police
A forensic animation prepared by Sgt. Francisco Carrera of the Illinois State Police was shown five times during the trial of Carlando Hurt to show exactly how his red Oldsmobile attempted to pass a semi, striking first the semi and then, fire lieutenant Scott Gillen, killing him.
forensic animation sequence #3 of vehicle path by Illinois State Police forensic animation sequence #4 of vehicle path by Illinois State Police

Also, explains Stuart Gold, animator and owner of Shadow and Light Productions of Berkeley, California, people integrate the world in three ways: auditory, visually and kinesthetically. "A lot of people are auditory, but most are visual," he says. "The auditory people will really get the verbal message that comes out of the lawyer, but a lot of people who are visual may not get that audio component and really need to see something."

From an attorney’s perspective, animation is a useful device in proving a defendant’s guilt or a client's innocence.

"You can almost transport the jury back there," says Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Byrne. "There is no other tool I can think of that can lay the evidence out so clearly."

Traffic was moving only 40-45 mph, says Carrera.Yet, Hurt believed he could get by the semi, not realizing that Gillen and a fire truck were blocking traffic for a previous crash. At that moment, another came to pass.

To portray to a jury exactly the sequence of events in this case, the Illinois State Police Forensic Diagramming and Animation Section prepared a 3D computer animation. Carrera, a forensic animator, used his experience and skills, combined with O'Hern's expert findings, to develop an accurate, 5-minute, 10-second depiction of this fatal incident.

The animation was used by Byrne to convince a jury of Hurt’s guilt. "It takes a lot of guess work out for the jury," he says. "It paints a picture. They don’t have to imagine it, they don’t have to guess it, they don’t have to piece it together."

Besides working as a full-time officer for the Village of Tinley Park, Illinois, O'Hern's side job is as a traffic crash reconstruction specialist, through his company, O'Hern Traffic Accident Consultants. O'Hern, with the assistance of eight employees, performs time/distance studies; analyzes movement of vehicles to determine how fast they were going, where they started and finished, as well as assesses damage to vehicles and marks on roadways.

The information he collects at the scene is used by Carrera to develop an animation of the incident. For the Gillen crash, the two collaborated approximately 18 hours, reenacting in 3D the various witnesses' testimonies and incorporating O'Hern's crash scene measurements.

"We actually sit and calculate, frame by frame, the movements of the vehicles," says O'Hern. "In this particular case, there were several vehicles we had to move. The state troopers' cars and the fire truck were stationary, but the offender's car and three witness vehicles had to be moved in sequence with their testimony and what they could have seen or what they stated they saw."

The semi was in the left lane and the fire truck blocking the right and center lanes. Hurt’s vehicle tried to outpace the semi and pass the fire truck. "He actually hit the semi first and that caused him to spin in a counterclockwise direction into the fire truck," he says. Hurt maintained through the trial that another car had ran him off the road.

"We showed that based on the set up of the squad cars, the flares and the testimony of the witnesses, as well as the dynamics of his car, that wasn’t true," says O'Hern. "The fact that the damage matched up to the front left corner of his car and the damage to the front end of his car was pushed straight back suggested he ran into the truck first. Based on the dynamics of that impact, it would cause the offending vehicle to rotate counterclockwise, which would then set up the striking of Scott Gillen and the fire truck."

This detailed explanation transformed into a 3D animation was exactly what Byrne was looking for to fashion a complicated situation, one difficult to articulate, into a simple picture. "Animations assist the jurors tremendously in trying to understand some of these cases," he says. "They can be very difficult to understand because accident reconstruction deals with physics and distances over time. But, when you can visualize it and put it into a moving picture, it is quite a bit easier than trying to translate in your own mind the mathematical equations it took the accident reconstructionist to arrive at his conclusions."

The animation was also shown during the eyewitnesses' testimonies. Two testified they had seen the car rotate and were unaware what caused it to or that the vehicle had struck the semi. When the animation was shown, it illustrated to the jury that, based on the location of the witnesses' cars, it would have been impossible for them to see the impact of Hurt's car with the semi. "This helps to show why witness testimony is the way it is," says O'Hern. "If you’re driving behind a semi, can you see something hit the front side of a semi?"

This proved crucial in the case because "the defense attorney is going to say the witnesses didn't see this, so it didn't occur," he adds. "By putting it together in an animation, you can actually show the jury why the testimony didn't include that part of the impact."

car vs. train sequence #1 by Illinois State Police car vs. train sequence #2 by Illinois State Police
Forensic animations are used to aid a jury in visualizing a hard-to-explain situation. Above, a car versus train crash is shown.

An illustration of a body in 3D is known as a body chart. A crime involving a gunshot or knife wound victim would be typical of using a body chart animation in court. Trajectory rods would illustrate to a judge and jury the entrance and exit wounds as well as angle of entrance. These animations are prepared most commonly under the supervision of a forensic pathologist as an expert witness.

"It's a team approach: working with a team that consists of attorneys who are trying the case and expert witnesses who are providing the information that the animation will be based upon," Breaux says of the animation process.

Body charts are the most common animations Carrera prepares for Illinois. His first case was a body chart referencing a killing spree that began in Indiana and ended tragically in Illinois. Upon attempting to dispose of a car they had stolen in the previous state, two men found a farmhouse in rural Illinois and were planning to steal the farmer’s truck.

At the time of the incident, says Carrera, the farmer was at his neighbor’s house and could see the car traveling down his driveway. The farmer and the neighbor climbed in another truck and met the men as they were leaving in the stolen truck. The men shot both the farmer and his neighbor, killing the neighbor and leaving the farmer for dead. "As soon as they took off, the farmer went into the pickup truck and followed these guys, even though he was bleeding," says Carrera.

During the chase, the farmer called police on a cell phone and ended up breaking off from the pursuit due to large blood loss. The police eventually caught up to the men; there was a shootout and one was killed. "It was very graphic," says Carrera, who prepared the animation demonstrating approximately eight gunshot wounds the neighbor had suffered to the face and head.

Another example of a body chart was a recent case in Peoria, Illinois, in which a police officer was killed by an 18-year-old man. The young defendant was claiming self-defense, even though he had shot the policeman five times.

"What the animation adds is incredibly essential," says the forensic pathologist who evaluated the crime and prefers to remain unnamed. "In this case, it was the critical point, I think. The animation can show to the jury the direction of the bullets and to some extent, the range of fire."

As the story goes, says the pathologist, this officer had been pursuing the man for an extended period of time. On this night, the officer chased the man on foot. "What we think happened is the man was ahead and he turned a corner, then turned back with his gun and shot the officer."

The defendant maintained self-defense, though the findings of this pathologist proved otherwise. Two shots were fired into the trunk of the body and three in the head of the Peoria officer. "One for sure had a shored exit where the bullet struck concrete, so his face had to be on the sidewalk at that time," says the pathologist. The 18 year old never swayed from his story that the officer had tackled him and there was a struggle before he reached into his left pocket, reaching his left hand under his right arm and shot the officer, who was on top of him.

"We said 'no way,'" the pathologist adds. "If we hadn’t said a single word, if there was a smart juror, they could figure out that wasn't possible." This is because evidence showed the officer's wounds in his left side, from different ranges and directions.

Shown three times during the course of the trial, the animation was essential, the pathologist says. "It couldn't have been done as well with a diagram or even using a skeleton."

Having testified in various states using methods including Styrofoam heads in Arkansas and skeletons in Illinois, the pathologist believes that a forensic 3D animation was not as tedious and much more effective.

"This animation was incredible," the pathologist adds. “The courtroom was so silent you could hear a pin drop. It was just overwhelming."

The second most popular animations Carrera composes are beginning to be automotive crashes. "Crashes are a little trickier," he says. This is because of the immense detail that must be accurately measured and included in crash reconstructions.

To produce a forensic animation, data gathered by experts and provided to an animator must be extremely detail-driven, says Breaux. The responsibility for obtaining those precise details is placed in the hands of the law enforcement personnel collecting them.

In today’s high-tech society, total stations have become the primary surveying equipment used for obtaining such information. This provides data in a digital format, which is more accurate and easily transferred than if taken by hand, says Breaux.

"An accurate digital drawing can provide a ready-made basis for a forensic animation, increasing efficiency, and reducing production time and costs," he adds.

"The great thing about them (total stations)," adds Carrera, "is the data can be directly inputted into the animation software. It's a very accurate way of documenting and measuring a scene, plus it provides 3D terrain." Two years ago, he says, the Illinois State Police purchased seven total stations with grant funds. Every crash Carrera has animated since then has been measured using these devices and it will be a requirement for the department to have 3D animations prepared in the future.

Using a digital camera also offers forensic animators a variety of images to recreate objects, especially when including color and texture in an animation. Images can be used to show the animator an object from different views and make the virtual scene as real as possible.

Breaux produces animations mainly for vehicular incidents. One example is a perception-reaction time animation. "Does the driver have enough time to understand the situation occurred and then, have time to react to make the car do what it needs to do to avoid an accident?" he explains.

Breaux frequently animates line-of-sight vehicle crashes. An example of this would be vehicles coming together at an intersection where there are a lot of bushes or a building corner: something that blocks the view.

"The best way to show whether their vision was obstructed is to put the jury in that position to see it," says Breaux. "To some degree, it can be done with still photographs, but since the car was moving at the time, the jury needs to know where the driver couldn't see and at what point they could see and how fast they were moving, to judge for themselves whether there was enough time to make a decision."

Rollovers are also events that Breaux commonly completes animations for. "For an accident reconstructionist to describe the physics of the rollover to a jury, it gets very technical," he says. "Since the car is moving in all three dimensions at the same time, it's much more persuasive to show a jury the car actually going through those motions."

Sequence of events is another type of animation that Carrera produces for police departments throughout Illinois. "Based on the evidence and witness statements, we put together a chronological depiction of the evidence," he says.

An example of a 2D sequence of events animation that Brian Miller, a supervisor in the Illinois State Police Forensic Diagramming and Animation Section, produced involved a man who had been drinking all night. The man arrived at a night club and parked his vehicle in a no-parking zone. Security guards told the man he was unable to leave his car there, and when he disregarded the guards' warnings, they followed him into the club.

"At a certain point, they approached him and he pulled out a gun and shot one of the security guards in the leg," says Carrera.

The injured security guard attempted to crawl toward his shooter and the intoxicated man fell back, accidentally shooting himself in the face. In court, he claimed that somebody shot him.

"We went to the bar," says Carrera. "took all the measurements, got the angle of the bullet and then proceeded to animate the story."

The animation presented at the trial showed the entire incident, beginning with the man's arrival at the bar and ending with him tripping and the gun going off, thus a sequence of events.

Pursuit sequence #1 by Illinois State Police Pursuit sequence #2 by Illinois State Police Pursuit sequence #3 by Illinois State Police
Follow the red car. This forensic animation was used to show the pursuit of a vehicle by law enforcement personnel. Animations can be used to show many things, including sequence of events, homicides, as well as vehicle crashes.

"We can't make a defendant look like a defendant," says Carrera. "We try to keep the animations as clinical as possible."

If an animation is too realistic, it is likely to be inadmissible at trial. Plus, the issue of jury persuasion arises.

"When somebody looks at something, it integrates into their subconscious," says Gold. "They get a sense that they witnessed it, rather than they've seen someone's version of it."

When he first started in the animation business, Gold says that boxylooking cars were acceptable because the technology wasn't as sophisticated. "Now, since 'Jurassic Park,' everybody has a sense of what animation should be. They want to get a sense that they're looking at the same quality they see in the entertainment world. If they don't see that quality on an unconscious level, they think maybe it's not accurate."

For an animation picturing a victim or defendant, it is important to not make the animated figures resemble the real-life people.

"If there is a question as to whether that person is the murderer, it is going to be extremely prejudicial because the jury is seeing that person committing the crime," says Breaux.

"That’s the power and danger of forensic animation," Gold adds. "It’s a double-sided coin. It really has a tremendous psychological power and that’s why judges have been so afraid of it."

Byrne, an attorney for the State of Illinois, feels that the defense will always try to make the realistic potential of an animation an issue, but the animation is based on evidence of the crime that was introduced in court separate from the animation itself. "We didn’t claim that this was a reconstruction of the accident," he says, referring to the Gillen case. "It was an animation of the evidence."

Jurors were also presented with a "limiting instruction" from the judge each time the animation was shown during Hurt’s trial. This explains to the jury that, "the animation was being offered for a certain purpose and they were still supposed to rely on all the evidence in determining guilt or innocence," explains Byrne.

Today’s rapid technological growth has made it possible to produce forensic animations cheaper and faster than before.

The first animation Gold produced was on a Compaq 286 computer that cost $70,000, including the connection to proprietary hardware. "It took this computer about 14 days, running 24/7 to spit out a 13-second animation which had very little quality compared to today’s," he says. "I could do that same animation today during a cup of coffee on a $2,000 computer with maybe $2,000 to $3,000 worth of software."

Both animators and law enforcement officers agree forensic animation is more prevalent in civil cases than criminal suits. This is primarily due to the cost of producing them. The cost to the consumer has also decreased over the years. When Gold was new to the field, he says "animations were going for about $1,000 a finished second. Now, the cost is more like $50 to $100 per finished second with 10 times the quality and 10 times as fast in terms of turnover."

Also, simple scenes versus complex scenes affect the cost of production. A few thousand dollars, says Breaux, will cover a basic animation, where as a more detailed presentation could easily approach $30,000. "In the early ’90s, people were often quoting six figures for animations, but those days are gone," says Breaux. "Because technology has become more common place, computers are more capable and there is a greater diversity of experts producing the work, a little competition brings the cost down."

Even though the cost has decreased, the technology is still not affordable to all parties involved. This can prove to be an upset in a court of law. "If only one side can afford the technology and if that one side is the prosecution, then you’ve got a problem whether the defense is getting a confident legal representation," he adds.

For the State of Illinois, law enforcement and crime task force personnel are able to obtain the services of Carrera’s section at no cost.Time and money are the two big issues facing attorneys who would like to present a forensic animation for trial."We don’t have a big unit to do it," says Byrne. "If we were to go private, these could cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 and taxpayers can’t afford it. There may be a lot of cases we’d like to do it on, but we’re going to have to pick and choose."

"In about 5 years, the 15-, 16- year-old kids playing on Xboxes, Playstation, computers and the Internet will be 21 and many of them will be entering the workforce and bringing with them that computer ease and knowledge," stresses Carrera.

"We’re very fortunate the State Police had the foresight to initiate this program at a time when the technology was relatively new in the criminal justice system," he adds. "Fifteen years ago, we didn’t see a lot of diagrams in court. Hopefully, as we do more and more animations, and the courts are exposed to them, it will be a little bit more commonplace."

Carrera was hired to the section in 1998 because of his knowledge with computers and animation, from years of video gaming graphics. "A lot of the software that is used in gaming and in making movies is the same software we use for the animations," he says.

The diagramming and animation section, which originally produced only 2D diagrams, had been started by Miller years before.

Even though only a handful of agencies in the United States, including the FBI and Oregon State Police, provide in-house animation services, animators are optimistic others will follow these and the Illinois State Police models.

The Illinois animators were trained by the FBI. "They didn't even have a course for it," says Carrera. "Their animators put together a 40-hour basic computer animation course and sent two agents out to train us." Another 40-hour measuring and surveying course was presented to the crime scene investigators to teach them how to take measurements specifically for 3D animations. That was then.

This is now.

Just in the last year and a half, Carrera has seen his workload expand. One or two animations used to be the average backlog. Today he looks at a bulletin board of 35 different cases. Fifteen of those are completed.

O'Hern also sees the use of forensic animation expanding in the near future. "As long as the animation is done based on the physical evidence, I think it's an extremely beneficial tool that will become more and more widely used," he says.

The simpler days of "Steamboat Willie" are a lingering memory. Animation has left behind colored pencils and stick figures, creating a new dimension in forensics.

Animation basics

There are five basic steps in the production of forensic animations.

(1) A concept must be devised.

(2) In the modeling phase, the virtual scene and actors are created, says Steven Breaux of Perceptual Motion. "This generally requires the most time, since physical detail of a crime or accident must be accurately incorporated into the computer model," he adds.

(3) Keyframing is also a time-consuming process because it "defines the motion of objects within the scene to recreate the event being portrayed," says Breaux.

(4) Rendering is to animation what printing is to a document, Sgt. Francisco Carrera of the Illinois State Police explains. Or, it is transforming raw data into images. "The computer creates a single image, or frame, for every 1/30th of a second of the animation timeline, and saves the images for editing," says Breaux.

(5) When the objects have been defined and animated, editing is final step in the animation process. Titles and captions are added and the animation is recorded to VHS or DVD for presentation at trial.

To produce an animation, the direct aid of an expert is necessary. The forensic animator must work with experts on technical issues to make sure the incident is being accurately portrayed.

"For crashes, we insist the crash reconstructionist is there at the time we are putting this together, so they have input the entire way through," says Carrera. Forensic pathologists, however, are required to fill out a form at the time of a victim's autopsy. This guides the animator by indicating entrance and exit wounds, and angles of bullet or other weapon travel. Before finalizing the animation, the pathologist is consulted to confirm the accuracy for testimony in court.

The content of animations can be divided into two categories: primary and secondary objects. Primary objects are those that the animation focuses directly on. For an automotive crash, "that would be the particular segment of road where the accident happened and the details about the cars themselves," says Breaux. For a crime scene animation, the primary objects would include the mannequins representing the defendant and victim, any weapons and the immediate surroundings.

The primary objects of an animation "need to be completely accurate, both in physical dimensions and in the way they move in the animation," he adds.

Secondary objects are "all the things that go around it to give it a context and to make it look realistic," says Breaux. This would include foliage, signs, roadways, etc.

Vehicular crash animation by Perceptual Motion At left, an animation demonstrates a vehicular crash and at right, a body chart is used to show a jury the stab wounds a victim suffered during an attack. Body Chart showing stab wounds to victim by Illinois State Police

Agency Features

Police Officers Memorial
Statewide 911
Firearms Services
Sex Offender Information
Missing Illinois Sex Offenders
Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Information
Methamphetamine Manufacturer Registry
Uniform Crime Reporting
Take the ISP Citizen Survey
Medicaid Fraud
Become a Trooper
Ending Opioid Misuse
Illinois Crash Report
Illinois Bicentennial
Copyright © 2022 Illinois State Police Site Map | ISP Privacy | Illinois Privacy Info | Kids Privacy | Web Accessibility | Contact Us