How Evidential is using graphic design to help juries understand evidence

Manchester company Evidential is helping transform the way evidence is presented in UK and EU courtrooms. We speak to founder Sean Murphy about recreating crime scenes in VR and using graphic design to help juries understand evidence

Animations showing the movement of a vehicle, created by Evidential
Animations showing the movement of a vehicle, created by Evidential

Evidential specialises in the electronic presentation of evidence (EPE). It creates animations and graphic visualisations for court cases – from maps plotting cell phone data to 3D printed models that can be used to show injuries – and digitises documents for trials and tribunals. It also offers expert witness services, analysing CCTV footage, audio recordings and computer data.

The company was today named in Creative England’s CE50 list, which highlights innovative creative companies based outside of London. It is also one of 10 Future Leaders identified by Creative England this year. 

Evidential’s team of software developers, former police officers and graphic designers have assisted on high-profile criminal fraud cases and murder investigations, helping secure convictions while speeding up cases and bringing down costs. The company is also using VR to recreate crime scenes in 3D and develop training aids for police officers.

A VR experience demonstrated at Creative England’s CE Live event in London today allows users to look around a crime scene in a two-bedroom house, unlocking clues and discovering evidence. The project was developed with a £50,000 grant from Creative England and Evidential hopes it can soon be used to help juries, experts and witnesses in court cases.

Using VR to reconstruct crime scenes

“It allows people to relive the scene,” says Sean Murphy, who founded Evidential in 2014. “It could be used by a Crime Scene Investigator or a witness who can put themselves in a position they were in [when a crime was taking place] to explain to people what they could and couldn’t see.”

The tech could be used to reconstruct buildings or environments that no longer exist from police photographs. “There might be a murder in a nightclub but by the time [the case] goes to court a year later, the building has been knocked down,” explains Murphy. VR crime scenes created from photographs cannot be 100% accurate but they can help juries understand the layout of a space and are easier to interpret than architect’s drawings or plans. In spaces that do still exist, Evidential can use laser scanning to recreate them in VR within 3mm accuracy.

Evidential is yet to use the technology in a court case – any new tech must be thoroughly researched and tested and approved by judges, barristers and police officers before it is introduced into the courtroom – but Murphy says the initial response has been positive. In Germany, the Bavarian State criminal office (LKA) in Munich has been working with a digital imaging expert to reconstruct Auschwitz in VR (a 3D model created using blueprints of the camp was used in the prosecution of SS guard Reinhold Hanning in June last year), and the hope is that VR could be used to trigger memories in witnesses as well as to explain a scene to juries.

Evidential is currently using VR to reconstruct crime scenes in 3D
Evidential is currently using VR to reconstruct crime scenes in 3D

Evidential is now working on using the technology to develop a training aid for police forces. “We’re looking at developing a tool that would allow [officers] to experience a crime scene and get scored on what they achieve, if they uncover evidence,” says Murphy. This would prove considerably cheaper than staging real-life training experiences, as the Met Police have been doing in London to prepare for potential terrorist attacks – though there is an argument that even the most immersive of VR experiences can’t fully equip officers for a real-life event. It could help standardise training across forces, however, and identify discrepancies in training by comparing different forces’ scores.

From TV graphics to forensics

Murphy founded Evidential after working as an imaging consultant for Greater Manchester Police and a private firm in London. He studied graphic design at the University of Hull in the 1990s and had planned to work in TV graphics before he spotted a job ad for an imaging expert in GMP’s video department.

Murphy has worked as an expert witness for 18 years, assisting in cases involving the suspected theft of an Olympic torch and an assassination attempt on the Paraguayan President. His job can include enhancing CCTV footage to identify a face or working out the speed at which a car was travelling from a video.

In the early 2000s, he helped introduce DVDs into courtrooms to make trials more efficient. He also assisted in a case investigating the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay and used EPE to reduce the length of the case by six weeks, resulting in savings of around £500,000. 

Cutting the cost of cases

While smaller court cases are still largely dependant on paper documents and physical evidence, EPE is commonplace in high-profile court cases and international tribunals. As well as visualising evidence, Evidential creates systems that can store hundreds of thousands of documents, creating a secure and searchable database for use in a courtroom. Barristers can pull up documents in just a few seconds instead of having to send someone to physically locate a file and make copies for the jury. They can also annotate documents on screen.

In cases where EPE has been used, Murphy says it has led to a 30% saving, according to research carried out by the Inland Revenue. “There is an upfront cost involved in EPE, but there are huge savings at the end, so the Crown Prosecution Service [CPS] can see the benefit of it,” he explains. In a six month trial, that 30% saving could be a six-figure sum.

“The CPS have also realised they could use this not just on very high profile cases but on what they call volume criminal trials that last one, two or three days. If we can save two hours [in each one] … that’s just as big a saving as the six month trial,” says Murphy.

When Murphy was studying design, he had no idea his imaging skills could land him a job in forensics. Shows like Silent Witness and CSI have since made the subject more popular – some universities now offer specialist forensic media courses – but real-life forensics is very different to the kind seen on TV.

TV vs real-life forensics

“I get requests from police officers who have seen something on TV and think it can be done in real life  … but TV often goes beyond what’s possible,” he says. “For example, they’ll enhance CCTV footage to the nth degree when it’s not possible. There is tech that will enable you to [zoom in enough to] read a newspaper from space but you need to have an expensive camera in the first place. The majority of the time, I’m working with a £50 one that was stuck in an off-licence.”

Evidential’s graphic visualisations are also much less stylised than those seen on TV. “We have to be careful our graphics don’t go before the message … the idea is we get the information across in the best possible way,” he says. 

Graphic visualisations can be vital in helping lay juries to understand evidence by presenting complex information in a more accessible and engaging format. Murphy says that juries today are increasingly expecting to see information represented visually and in digital formats.

“The modern jury expect to be fed information visually,” he says. “Barristers tend to learn from a book … and will happily stand up and talk to a jury for several hours, not realising that half of them will turn off after 20 minutes.”

“It’s not about going entirely digital … print still has a place [in court], but so do animations or 3D printed objects,” says Murphy. “We’re there to present evidence in best possible way and we use our expertise to decide which method is right for it.”

A 3D printed model created by Evidential to show cranial injuries
A 3D printed model created by Evidential to show cranial injuries

“There is evidence out there that juries find graphical evidence easier to understand and the benefit to the rate of conviction is just as important as the cost savings,” he continues. “If juries understand evidence, they have a better chance of convicting. It also causes criminal trials to be quicker. Witnesses aren’t required to attend for days on end and police have to take less time out of their jobs, so the overall perception of the criminal justice system is improved.”

Many of the UK’s courtrooms are still poorly equipped and only 12 are currently equipped for EPE. “There’s a current move to have wireless internet installed in courtrooms, which everyone’s really excited about, even though it’s been in Starbucks for years,” says Murphy.

Evidential has been working on assisting with largely paperless tribunals in international courts, however, and developing a system that allows people to handle digital evidence in courts without needing specialist knowledge or training. It may be a while before VR headsets are commonplace in courtrooms – but it seems that the legal system is finally starting to adapt to the digital age.

The CE50 list was chosen by judges from creative industries. You can see the full list here. Find out more about Evidential’s work at evidential.com and Creative England’s work at creativeengland.co.uk

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