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
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.
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
"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."
Crash constitutes animation
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
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."
Bodies in 3D
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
Vehicles in virtual space
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
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
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,
"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?"
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
Tracking the crime
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 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.
Realism too real?
"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
"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
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,"
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
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,"
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."
Future of animation
"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,"
"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
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
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.
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.