Bring Your Jury to the Scene, Virtually

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Site visits can sometimes be a part of a criminal case — and predictably, jurors love them as much as school kids love field trips. It can also matter in civil cases, to see where the auto accident or the personal injury took place. But as helpful as these visits can be, they just don’t happen because it is an expensive endeavor. There is also a good chance that by the time we make it to the trial stage, the scene itself has changed; and in any case, the hazard, the body, and the wrecked car are no longer there. In the absence of a site visit, jurors usually have to piece it together from photographs and diagrams. For example, I recently worked on a case for a large retailer, and jurors did not get a store visit but instead had to envision the layout and the sight-lines in the store to glean understanding of the responsibility of various parties to have seen or stopped an assault.

The technology for immersive virtual reality has advanced to the point that not only can we place jurors in the scene, but we can also place them in the scene as it was when the event in question took place. In the first study of its kind, a large team of Australian researchers (Reichherzer et al., 2021) tested the effects of asking jurors to reconstruct from two-dimensional exhibits versus placing them in a three-dimensional environment and allowing them to look around. They found that the virtual reality condition showed several advantages, including better recall and more consistent decision-making. They also shared the example of one trial where it has already occurred: In a German criminal court, jurors visited a historically reconstructed version of the Auschwitz concentration camp in order to visualize what guards could have seen. In this post, I will take a look at the research and its implications.

The Research: Virtual Can Be More Real

Research participants listened to openings from the prosecution and defense, and then viewed a crime scene either with a virtual reality headset or via still images. The case related to an on-campus argument between two students which ended in a vehicle-caused death. So it was necessary to not just understand the scene, but also the position of the vehicle, the pedestrian, and the eyewitnesses.

To create the virtual reality simulation, researchers laser scanned the scene, then manipulated the resulting files to make it more like the reality on the ground at the time of the incident. They were also able to add evidence where it was found and to place the victim on the ground. At various “hotspots,” the jurors were able to take a closer look at images of evidence, or to hear the 911 call from where it was placed. They could see the viewpoints of the driver, the victim, or eyewitnesses, or they could create their own vantage points by virtually moving around on the scene.

In the control group conditions, in contrast, jurors had to reconstruct the scene from simple diagrams and two-dimensional photography. Comparing the two experiences, the researchers noted the following:

  • Those viewing by virtual reality had significantly better narrative recall
  • Those viewing by virtual reality were significantly more accurate on spatial placement.
  • Those viewing the still images had a higher cognitive load, based on the difficulty of reconstructing.
  • The prosecution fared much better in the virtual reality condition, with 9.5 times the number of convictions.
  • Emotional arousal (galvanic skin response) did not differ between the two conditions, leading researchers to believe that virtual reality did not work just by creating a more emotional experience.

Interestingly, all of the control group members were allowed to experience the virtual reality version after the study was done, and one made a point of saying it would have changed his verdict. The jurors also commented on the experience:

“The use of VR heightened my spatial awareness. I no longer felt like I had to remember a scene, [I felt] as if I was part of it. I felt like the ability to understand the spatial relationships between key items and views was significantly increased compared to photo/text techniques.”

The Implications: Another Way to Improve Juror Decision-Making

In some settings, virtual reality is seen as a novelty. Yet in fields as diverse as medicine, art, and engineering, it is becoming a very important tool. The field of jury persuasion could become another such setting. While it may be expensive to use, it is likely not as expensive as a physical site visit, and it could be more controllable and effective. Particularly in civil cases, where the expenses are more likely to be borne by the parties, trial lawyers should consider asking for virtual reality in any case that requires an understanding of a particular space or location. The more interactive you can make it for jurors, the more interested and engaged they will be. The love that jurors have for on-site field trips might even transfer itself to virtual reality. Even as the headsets might look a little goofy, we likely are at the point technologically where we should consider giving jurors a virtual reality experience when a spatial understanding is important to the case.

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Reichherzer, C., Cunningham, A., Coleman, T., Cao, R., McManus, K., Sheppard, D., … & Thomas, B. H. (2021, May). Bringing the Jury to the Scene of the Crime: Memory and Decision-Making in a Simulated Crime Scene. In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-12).

Image credit: 123rf.com, edited by the author

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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