Can Virtual Reality Destroy Partiality in Our Criminal Justice System?

This past week, I have been thinking a lot about the possibilities that augmented reality and virtual reality hold for the future. This is thanks to this week’s assignment in my Emerging Interfaces class, which is to develop a VR or AR concept that connects people as opposed to isolating them. After class last week, I came home and started talking to my significant other about the assignment. He mentioned an article that he had read recently about the development of VR crime scene replication for use in criminal investigations and trials. Considering that true crime stories are a guilty pleasure, previously satiated by TV and now by podcasts (oh hey, Criminal, Serial, and Sword and Scale!), I instantly wanted to know more about this.

Our Current Problem

Our legal system is imperfect; often, evidence is too complex or requires special knowledge to truly understand for the laymen jury member, necessitating expert witnesses to interpret it. However, the use of expert witnesses is flawed, as these experts (sometimes “experts”) can be hired by the defense or prosecution based on how closely to their preferred message the expert will interpret the accused’s psyche or the probable causes of blood spatters at a crime scene.

As the article, “Virtual reality robots could help teleport juries to crime scenes” from August reports, physically taking the jury to a crime scene so that they can see it first hand can be intrusive and damaging to the crime scene itself and the case overall. When jurors visited the crime scene of the high-profile 2001 UK Jill Dando murder case, they “needed a convoy of five vehicles to transport the jurors, lawyers, judge and their police escorts to the scene, passing through police barricades surrounded by neighbours, journalists and other spectators. It became a media spectacle” (theconversation.com). Additional problems can come when years have gone by and the crime scene is not in the same condition that it once was, or if a scene has been tainted or degraded, even if very little time has gone by. By the time an investigation is completed and a case goes to a jury trial, it is impossible to expect that a crime scene will be in the same state that it was when the crime originally happened.

There have been examples that prove that it can be incredibly helpful for a jury to go to the scene of the crime, regardless of the passage of time. In the case of the 2007 murder trial of music producer Phil Spector, “the defense lawyers claimed a large fountain at the scene caused a witness to mishear Spector admit to the crime. By visiting the scene, the jury were able to judge how likely this was, as well as gaining a better understanding of how the sequence of events may have unfolded” (theconversation.com).

What if a jury could walk through a crime scene in its original state instead of just seeing photos or reproductions of it? What if they could scrutinize a place down to every last object left behind, blood spatter, and shoe print? And how would capturing the scene of the crime in its original, explorable state change police investigation? Could we say goodbye to the shadier sides of our legal system like biased representations and tainted or manipulated evidence and crime scenes?

New Research Says Yes.

Mehzeb Chowdhury, a Durham University researcher in forensic science and criminal investigations, has developed the MABMAT 360-degree robotic imaging system that would accurately recreate crime scenes viewable in VR. Chowdhury defines the problem he hopes MABMAT to solve this way: “The problem with today’s crime scene reconstruction practices is that [they] usually involve still photography, hand-drawn sketches and — in rare cases — videography… This is an approximation of reality, not reality itself. Juries are bamboozled by conflicting crime scene recreations, as each side presents its own version of the crime scene, and where the evidence was found” (digitaltrends.com). It is vitally important for jurors to have a complete and objective picture of the place where the crime was allegedly committed, yet many times jurors are given partial, second- and third-hand information and depictions of what happened at the scene of the crime.

The MABMAT is pretty fascinating technology: it utilizes Arduino and Raspberry Pi controller boards, open-source software, and a NASA-inspired rover unit, and can be viewed on any headset, including the Google Cardboard. As you might could guess, Chowdhury is going for affordability. Even with everything involved in the MABMAT, the whole system costs less than $400. It also does not require the vast amount of computing power to view that many VR systems today do, which still makes them prohibitive for wide use.

The MABMAT. From http://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/vr-crime-scene-robot/

Chowdhury’s system is just months away from being launched and tested in the real world. Chowdhury says, “The plan is to work with police departments in the U.K. and U.S. Around 50 police forces from these two countries have already participated with data. The ideal scenario would be to collaborate with them… The system is on-track for testing in the next few months, but further development would depend on the support it gets.” So, this low-cost system that aims to take bias and error out of the equation could be used by policing agencies sooner than we think.

Mehzeb Chowdhury is not the only one developing VR technology for use in courtrooms. Caroline Sturdy Colls is currently leading a team at Staffordshire University, also in the UK. In fact, they are funding the project with a 182,000-Euro Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant and are collaborating with Staffordshire’s archaeology and game design departments, as well as the local police force in the area.

Sturdy Colls has similar sentiments to Chowdhury when it comes to the current state of things: “Traditional means of documenting, sketching and photographing crime scenes can be laborious and they do not prove data outputs suitable for presentation in court to non-experts.” The Staffordshire team is still a couple years away from the completion of their research, but the team is hopeful that their technology will be integrated into criminal investigations and trials in the UK when it is finished. Interestingly, Sturdy Colls “stated that the project was the first of its kind, at least in Europe,” according to this article from uploadvr.com, which tells me that they believe their technology will somehow be revolutionary different from that that Chowdhury has developed… or they just need to improve their Googling abilities. I am going to hope it’s the former.

The Possible Problems with the Solution

But are these new technologies a perfect answer to the current rime scene problem? When I started investigating these research projects, I was struck by the fact that again and again, articles on the subject said that video is not often being taken of crime scenes, though still photographs and sketches are. I tried digging far and wide on Google to figure out why. Is it that, in the heat of a newly committed crime, police are just neglecting to do this? Is it that many police agencies don’t have a dedicated crime scene recorder to make sure this happens?

I could only find two explanations: some don’t want to use video since the resolution is lower than in photos, and, as one could probably guess, the big problem of slashed budgets across the US for police and government agencies. With no extra money to invest in video equipment or updating computer systems to process that video, I could see how and why the depictions of crime scenes quite often are hodge podge.

So, if lack of resources is the barrier to incorporating the technology that we already have into crime scene depictions for juries, how realistic is it that this new VR technology will actually show up in court rooms once it’s available? Chowdhury’s $400 system can be viewed on anything, including a $15 Google Cardboard system, which seems more realistic than Sturdy Colls’s as yet unpriced system that requires an $800 HTC Vive to view. However, the article from theconversation.com quoted above also mentions that the “Staffordshire Police… noted that the £689 needed to order a Vive in the UK was actually very affordable for their resources.” I can’t imagine that every police force would have the luxury of being able to afford such technology with so little hesitation.

The HTC Vive.

In addition, it doesn’t seem that VR technology could really fix the issues that come with a crime scene regardless of the price tag and budgets of government agencies. Due to the nature of crime and investigation, police don’t always crack the case right away, so a fresh and unchanged crime scene is not always available, no matter what staff or equipment you have at your disposal. In these cases, juries must still rely on photographs, drawings, and second- or third- person accounts of what happened or what the scene looked like at time. And, regardless of all that — I would expect that experts will still be needed to interpret what a juror sees in a highly sophisticated VR re-creation of a crime scene.

So, is there really a way to eliminate bias and the skewing of the truth when it comes to how crime scenes are presented in a criminal case? As for right now, I am thinking that the answer still remains no.

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