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From drawing room to courtroom: SketchUp in crime scenes

SketchUp in the courtroom? You heard it right. Technical illustrator and SketchUp veteran Joshua Cohen stays busy helping attorneys build stronger cases through visual storytelling. Between 2004-2008, Fat Pencil Studio primarily served real estate clients, but the recession changed everything.  Now about 80% of their business is related to litigation. They use SketchUp to help attorneys make a stronger case. Equipped with SketchUp, Joshua and his team of designers at Fat Pencil Studio analyze problems, surface new perspectives, and bring narratives to life in 3D.   

SketchUp in Crime Scenes

How do you utilize visualization tools within your projects?

We use SketchUp for a majority of our projects — anytime there is a need to visualize a place, or an object, such as crime scenes, vehicle collisions, and construction details. SketchUp is a great tool for modeling everything we know about a case and see it from different perspectives. We often move the models around in real-time during client meetings to give everyone on the team an opportunity to test ideas and ask questions about what we might not yet know.

"Once everyone is on the same page about how to proceed, the SketchUp model often becomes a tool for telling the story of the case by creating snapshots that form the basis for a diagram, slide deck, or animation."
This sequence shows how a suspect could have hidden incriminating evidence in a drug case.
This sequence shows how a suspect could have hidden incriminating evidence in a drug case.
This sequence shows how a suspect could have hidden incriminating evidence in a drug case.
This sequence shows how a suspect could have hidden incriminating evidence in a drug case.
This sequence shows how a suspect could have hidden incriminating evidence in a drug case.

This sequence shows how a suspect could have hidden incriminating evidence in a drug case.

What circumstances led to Fat Pencil Studio migrating from architecture and planning to visualization for litigation?

I actually started Fat Pencil Studio with the idea of doing early-stage visualization for real-estate developers. I found plenty of work doing renderings of buildings to support marketing and permitting efforts. However, that work completely disappeared with the onset of the great recession, and I had to scramble to find new ways to keep myself busy. I happened to get a call from a colleague who had moved into real-estate consulting and was hired by the City of Portland as an expert witness for an eminent domain (condemnation) case. He had a bunch of spreadsheets to calculate the value of a property given different zoning and development scenarios. We agreed it would not work very well to review each line of a spreadsheet with the jury. I was able to create some exhibits for him to use in court, and also got an introduction to his clients at the City of Portland attorney's office, who subsequently asked for help visualizing the scene for a wrongful death lawsuit.

How does being able to visualize crime scenes help an investigation process?

On an abstract level, being able to fully experience a place makes an advocate much more effective in telling a story about what happened.

More specifically, we consistently see our client teams do better working together when a SketchUp model can be used to answer questions (ie. who could see what from where) and test ideas for how a particular event might have occurred. 

road work collision investigation

Highlighting different perspectives in a road work case covering a fatal collision.

What are some of the benefits of using SketchUp for you and your team? 

It’s simple to learn, which has made it possible for our team to quickly reach a level of proficiency needed to operate in live-design mode during meetings. The simplicity makes it possible for our clients to view SketchUp models on their own time using the free Viewer application. I’ve also come to appreciate the simple graphic quality that comes from native SketchUp artwork. We sometimes use basic rendering techniques to tweak the shading, but for the most part, I’ve been happy sticking with the SketchUp aesthetic that we see on screen.

Could you expand on your mentioned use of SketchUp in the context of 'live design' to facilitate improved communication?
We worked on the aforementioned wrongful death case for nearly a year, and had many opportunities to use our 3D model of the scene to help the attorneys collaborate with their staff, experts, and other witnesses. The use of a 3D model for visual facilitation allowed us to get better information from witnesses by having them look at things from multiple perspectives and point out locations on screen rather than trying to estimate distances. I also learned that the process of illustrating key issues and evidence dramatically raises the engagement of team members. This means fewer misunderstandings and better collaboration on strategic decisions about how to move forward in the case. 
Everything in our 3D model was tested and ready for presentation in Federal Court, and then the case settled shortly before trial. It was a bit of a letdown after all the preparation, but also led to an important realization: even though most cases never go to trial, visual tools can be tremendously valuable when used at an early stage.

Snapshots of the model used in a wrongful death lawsuit to illustrate witness testimony.
Snapshots of the model used in a wrongful death lawsuit to illustrate witness testimony.

Snapshots of the model used in a wrongful death lawsuit to illustrate witness testimony.

How does SketchUp help make the criminal cases you work on stronger? 

Using 3D visualization at the beginning of a case makes it possible for witnesses to provide more accurate details about an event, and the resulting diagrams can have the effect of anchoring their testimony. Without this visualization, memories may shift over time leading to differences in witness accounts.

"A strong case strategy backed up by a persuasive visual argument can often lead a case to settle before going to trial."

But if it does go to trial, the team will have the confidence that comes with being extremely well prepared.

Do you find that using 3D models causes investigators or litigators to approach cases differently, or question assumptions they made coming into a case?

It's hard for me to know exactly what assumptions litigators bring into a case, other than most attorneys think (before they work with us) that visuals are something you do right before trial. Every case is different and every attorney is different. Even if one person has some kind of bias toward issues in a case it's unlikely that everyone on the team has the same baggage. However, what seems to be universal is this little spark of joy that our clients experience when seeing the issues for their case clearly explained in a visual format. There's a sense of excitement for having a new way to work and a sense of being extremely well prepared to share the story of a case. This is a big deal because attorneys have to tell the story of their case hundreds of times. Having a tool that makes this process more enjoyable and persuasive is valuable, particularly when it's used early and often.

What are some examples of how you’ve used SketchUp in a crime scene investigation?

We have several examples. Some common ones include working with ballistics experts to test various positions of a shooter and a victim and mocking up a scenario described by a witness to see if it is physically possible. We have even brought a laptop into jail and done some real-time SketchUp modeling to help attorneys gather better information from their clients about what went down at the crime scene. It’s much easier to point to the screen and say, “it happened here,” than trying to describe locations and estimate distances. This is particularly true when there is a language barrier and the client is attempting to describe events through an interpreter.

Testing possible trajectories with 3D visualization.
Testing possible trajectories with 3D visualization.
Testing possible trajectories with 3D visualization.

Testing possible trajectories with 3D visualization.

How do you go about collecting data that goes into these models? What assurances do investigators, lawyers, and judges need about the underlying data that informed the model?  
We use the best information that is available to us. In some cases, we have a site survey or laser scan available to measure distances quite accurately. In other cases, we have only a rough diagram or a series of photographs. We are quite good at creating 3D models that are substantially similar to the actual location by referring only to photos. Sometimes we use a process called reverse projection photogrammetry to obtain reliable measurements for things that appear in the photos. 
People often ask me, "How accurate is this model?" I try to focus not just on the absolute accuracy (i.e. +/-  one inch versus one foot), but the relative accuracy. In other words, is this model accurate enough to answer the question we are posing? If I need to figure out if a road has one or two lanes, an aerial photo provides plenty of accuracy. If I need to know the exact width of a stripe on the road, I'm going to need a finer measurement.
When judges evaluate trial exhibits to decide if they can be used in court, they consider not just accuracy but also whether the exhibit is relevant to the issues of the case and fair to both sides. So we keep this in mind when choosing colors and developing a strategy for telling the story. It's expected that an exhibit developed by one party in the case will tell one side of the story, but it needs to be based on evidence and not be designed to mislead jurors.

We know you’ve started using AR/VR more and more. In what step of a criminal investigation process does AR/VR come in handy, if at all?

Right at the beginning. We always suggest using visual tools as early as possible because the process helps attorneys think critically about the story of a case. Of course, it’s important to consider the cost and benefits of using AR/VR or any type of visualization tool. It would be crazy to spend a bunch of money right at the beginning of a case to create a polished animation. Instead, we suggest using inexpensive tools that allow for a better investigation and help us create draft exhibits that can be evaluated for further development as the case progresses. 

What makes AR/VR more effective than an on-screen 3D model for use in court cases? 
Looking at a 3D model on the screen is a great way to understand what something looks like from different perspectives. Experiencing a model with immersive VR can actually help us understand what something feels like. For example in a case where a bus driver's ability to see pedestrians in a crosswalk is blocked by a large left-side mirror, we used a 3D model to produce snapshots of what the driver might have seen when driving through the intersection. We can even drag the camera back and forth in real-time to simulate how the view might change when the driver leans to check the blind spot. Entering the driver's perspective in VR allows us to understand how it feels to lean far enough to clear the blind spot and think about how realistic it would be to do this while driving. In another example, a construction worker fell from a tall scaffold that was erected with a "head-knocker" obstacle right near the ladder. VR allows a viewer to understand what it feels like to duck under this obstacle while stepping out over a twenty-foot drop to access the ladder.

navigating the ladder
A fall from this scaffolding occurred while attempting to navigate to the ladder.

It seems like AR/VR would be a great option for use in a courtroom. How do you think attorneys will start using this in the future? 

I don't expect to see jurors wearing headsets for the majority of a trial. It's very important for attorneys to develop a personal connection with jurors during voir dire, opening statement, and other parts of a trial. However, I expect an early use of VR will be allowing jurors to "visit" a scene that would be impossible or impractical to see in person. Attorneys sometimes ask a judge for permission to bring jurors to the scene, but these "jury views" are rarely granted due to the time and expense of making them happen. VR headsets could be used to let jurors take turns exploring a digital recreation of the scene. Then, attorneys might later use that same VR model to let a witness walkthrough the scene while jurors watch the experience on a monitor. They would be familiar with the scene, having walked through it themselves, which would make the witness testimony easier to understand and evaluate.

Walking through crime scenes in virtual reality.
Walking through crime scenes in virtual reality.

Walking through crime scenes in virtual reality.

What is your favorite SketchUp command?

Position Camera. It’s the most direct way to figure out what things look like from a particular location, and it provides a very intuitive way of shifting perspective for anyone that may be watching me operate the SketchUp model.

Find out more about Joshua Cohen and Fat Pencil Studio.