Craig Fries, founder and CEO of Precision Simulations Inc., a scene documentation, reconstruction analysis, and 3D visualization firm, never intended to be doing forensic animation for a living. “I was on my way to get a PhD in cognitive science,” Fries said. But an interim lab position performing statistics for an expert witness in aviation crashes set him on another course.
Fries was introduced to accident reconstruction as he plotted radar traces of planes that had crashed behind larger planes upon landing. Back then in the early ’90s, 3D animation had just reached the courtroom. It caught Fries’ attention, and he obtained a copy of the 3D software used to create the animation. “I thought that would be helpful for us, instead of trying to explain with pen and paper and using our hands and whatnot to explain to the jury how the plane went down, if we could create an animation of it,” Fries said. His employer didn’t see it that way. So in 1992, Fries quit his job and started Precision Simulations Inc. “Turned out I was right,” Fries said. “Lawyers were hungry for it. Juries were hungry for it.”
Despite the significant change in the path of his career, Fries’ background in psychology has proved valuable to his work in forensics. “That background helped me a lot in dealing with how juries see and think,” he said. With the use of 3D laser scanning technology and visualization software, Fries’ visual products help jurors psychologically by enabling them to understand the evidence, stay engaged in the case, and reach an informed consensus.
“I’m a big believer that today’s jurors are visual,” Fries said. “They need to see this, and they really do want to understand the evidence.” When presented orally or as static, two-dimensional measurements, diagrams and photos, evidence can quickly become confusing. “It would be asking a lot for the jury to juggle all that evidence and its locations without providing them the tools, like we do, to see how they relate to each other and what they do.”
The conventional method of presenting evidence can also quickly become boring. “Juries love seeing point clouds,” Fries said. “They are bored to tears with discussions of what happened and tests and things that they don’t get. It makes them sleepy. You show up with laser scanning and they go, ‘Wow, this is CSI. This is a little more interesting.’ They definitely pay attention.”
The synergy between psychology and laser scanning technology is perhaps best demonstrated in the imagery that Fries creates using scan data and visualization software.
When evidence is presented verbally, each juror forms a unique mental picture of what is being described. “Study after study has shown that if you do that,” Fries explains, “and then ask the jurors to basically draw what it is you just described, even if it is something as simple as a sunset, you get 12 different pictures.”
In contrast, presenting the evidence visually creates what Fries calls “a single visual image.” “Instead of 12 jurors forming a picture in their mind of what is being described—and having 12 different pictures because they’re all hearing it differently—if you show them an image of what happened,” Fries explains, “they are all looking at the exact same thing.” Creating a single visual image collapses all those subjective mental images down to one fact-based image, which eliminates confusion and builds consensus.
“That alone is worth a lot,” Fries said, “when it comes to asking a jury to weigh things as heavy as, essentially, life and death.”
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Images courtesy of Precision Simulations Inc.
About the author: Wendy Lyons is journalist living in Canton, Georgia, who spent several years writing about surveying technology for POB magazine. She now focuses on covering laser scanning and other geospatial measurement solutions for public safety professionals.