Software takes jury to crime scene

ON THE JOB: ESR forensic scientists collect photographic evidence for the new software, which will help juries visualise crime scenes.
ON THE JOB: ESR forensic scientists collect photographic evidence for the new software, which will help juries visualise crime scenes.

Jurors will now be able to take a virtual walk through a murder scene, with the creation of interactive software by Kiwi scientists.

With the click of a mouse, observers can tour a site, moving through rooms, zooming in on weapons and blood spatters, and learning just whose DNA has been discovered where.

The technology had its debut at the High Court trial in February for the man accused of killing Rotorua's Ruakawa Newton. It was the first time the "virtual tour" software had been used to support the delivery of ESR forensic evidence in a New Zealand court.

The technology is now being used in six investigations throughout the country and is expected to be used in future court cases.

ESR forensic scientist Dion Shepphard said the technology – part of a two-year ESR research project – allowed the jury to view the forensic evidence in context.

"It runs a little bit like Street View on Google – you can go anywhere you choose. You can move through the scene, zooming in and zooming out of certain areas."

If there was an item of interest, for example a blood spatter, the user could click on the item and bring up close-up photographs, lab images and any relevant forensic data such as DNA profiles.

Internationally, there were other examples of interactive crime-scene software but including forensic data in the document was a unique innovation, Mr Shepphard said.

In the Rotorua case, Christopher Allan Heenan, stabbed Mr Newton, his former friend, in the chest after a drinking session on October 11, 2007.

After attacking Mr Newton, Heenan stabbed himself 11 times. He later claimed he had been acting in self-defence.

Crown solicitor Fletcher Pilditch, who prosecuted the case, said the trial involved a large quantity of forensic evidence.

"We had over 80 different samples which were submitted for DNA referencing. When you have that many coming from walls, the floor, clothing, the body of the deceased, weapons, the kitchen sink – that is a great volume of forensic information to be analysed and assessed.

"This new technology was able to depict that in a way which made it much more readily accessible."

It was beneficial for jurors, the prosecution and the defence in helping them to understand the crime scene, Mr Fletcher said. It also reduced the time required for presentation of forensic evidence in court. "I think it's a really exciting development.

"This enables the depiction of this material in a visual way, which may be better suited to some jurors than others. I think this technology pitches this quite technical information at all levels."

ESR is now looking at working with New Zealand companies with expertise in 3D graphics and digital rendering to develop the project further.

The Dominion Post