ESRC: Animations in court cause jury errors

Using animated evidence in court can confuse and bias a jury, according to new research. Computer-generated evidence (CGE) is frequently used in courts as a technique with which to demonstrate complex sequences of events, or collate different pieces of evidence into a more coherent picture.

Famously used in the trials of Amanda Knox and in presenting evidence against Oscar Pistorious, one of the advantages of CGE is that it allows a number of different viewpoints to be examined in a way which is often not possible with still images. However, research suggests that using CGE may confuse and bias juries, leading to dangerous errors in judgement.

The research by Professor Gareth Norris, a professor of criminology in the Department of Law and Criminology at Aberystwyth University, will be presented at an event as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual Festival of Social Science.

Professor Norris examined the extent to which viewing a two-car collision from different angles using computer animation affected people's perceptions of culpability. He found that the viewpoint presented (either overhead, facing or internal) had a direct effect on who the participants blamed for the collision. In another study, he found that the make and colour of a car could bias people's judgement of who was to blame for a car accident, when the accident was presented in the format of a colourful computer generated animation.

Participants watched an animation where one car travelling at 60mph in a 40mph zone swerves to avoid another car which pulls out into the road in front of it. Two different makes of car – a large, powerful off-road vehicle (4×4 Range Rover Sport) and a family oriented people-carrier style Volkswagen Touran are shown alternatively to be each of the two vehicles. The experiment showed that when people viewed the animation in colour as opposed to black and white, they were far more likely to think that the Range Rover was to blame, especially if the Range Rover was red as opposed to beige.

According to Professor Norris these findings mean that court officials should be cautious when using computer animation in courts.

"People are poor physicists and essentially if you have a graphic that shows someone can fly, people will believe they can fly. At a basic level, jurors and other legal decision makers must be made aware that these exhibits are merely a representation of one potential sequence of events," says Professor Norris.

Dr Catherine Williams, co-organiser of the event says:

"Using animation in court can be useful, but it can also be extremely dangerous. While it may be quite useful for criminal justice officials to look at, when it is being used by lay people who aren't used to looking at it you have to be extremely careful. Simply manipulating angles or even colours of vehicles change people's perceptions of events."

Professor Norris adds: "Psychology has much to offer the legal system in terms of establishing a range of advice about where and why potential problems might arise. Just as it seems incredible that we would have once put a child witness in a courtroom or introduced relatively unqualified 'experts' to offer advice, so it may also be that we allowed sophisticated techniques of persuasion without any real safeguards or guidelines."

This research is being showcased at an event entitled 'Criminology, criminal justice and young people' on 5 November as part of the annual Festival of Social Science, run by the ESRC and taking place between 2-9 November 2013. The event is being jointly run by Professor Gareth Norris and Dr Kate Williams.

It will allow young people at a local school in Aberystwyth to experience the powers and pitfalls of animated evidence in court cases by using computer generated exhibits of vehicle collisions and also consider how decisions about driving affect performance by participating in a driving game while wearing 'drunk glasses' or texting (so they feel the effects) before commencing a debate around the issues.

ESRC Press Office:

Susie Watts
Telephone: 01793 413119
Sarah Nichols
Telephone: 01793 413122
Notes for editors

Event: Criminology, criminal justice and young people
Organiser: Ms Kate Williams Aberystwyth
Date: 5 November 2013 13.25-15.20
Venues: Penglais School, Waun Fawr, Aberystwyth SY23 3AW
Audience: Schools
More Information: please contact: Ms Kate Williams on 01790 627739
The event will see pupils taking part in two activities:
Sentencing young people – Following a brief consideration of the interplay between criminal justice and social justice in relation to young offenders, pupils will decide which sentences to pass in relation to various scenarios and then, using research findings concerning the effects of decision-making in juvenile justice on both communities and young people, and will then debate the issues.
Driving – Using computer-generated exhibits of vehicle collisions, there will be an open discussion about the powers and pitfalls of animated evidence in court cases. Finally, pupils will consider how decisions about driving affect performance and they will participate in a driving game while wearing 'drunk glasses' or texting (so they feel the effects) and then research concerning rates will be considered and debated
The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place from 2-9 November 2013. With events from some of the country's leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives – both now and in the future. This year's Festival of Social Science has over 170 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events and a full list of the programme are available at the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
The Economic and Social Research Council is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.