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Animations and Demonstratives—Lessons From a Murder Trial

Three important lessons for visual aids: (1) Tie animations or other visual aids tightly to the evidence in the case; (2) Use simple visual aids to help jurors understand and track the evidence; and (3) Design visual aids that communicate your themes to the jury.

Judicial opinions, even unpublished ones, can teach us about using animations and demonstratives in court. Today, I’ll review decisions from a murder trial that illustrate three important lessons for visual aids:

(1) Tie animations or other visual aids tightly to the evidence in the case;

(2) Use simple visual aids to help jurors understand and track the evidence; and

(3) Design visual aids that communicate your themes to the jury.

The two decisions, People v. Taeotui, Cal. Court of Appeal, 4th Appellate Dist., 1st Div. 2010 (unpublished) and People v. Gaono, Cal. Court of Appeal, 4th Appellate Dist., 1st Div. 2011 (unpublished), involve the murder of a police officer. In two separate trials, jurors convicted the defendants for opening fire from a distance and killing an officer engaged in a traffic stop. The decisions mention three visual aids used by the prosecution: (1) a computer animation of the shooting showing both an overview and the shooter’s perspective; (2) a board with names and photographs of gang members; and (3) photographs of officers with transcriptions of police calls displayed while audio of the calls played to the jury.

The Animation of the Shooting

In both trials, the prosecution used a computer animation of the shooting during opening and closing. Footnote 18 of the Taeotui decision describes the animation in detail:

“The animation, which was shown during the prosecutor’s opening statement and his closing argument, starts with a diagram and map of the surrounding area and then zooms into overhead and street-level views of the corner of Arthur Avenue and Gold Street. It shows individuals – a uniformed male police officer, a uniformed female police officer and a female civilian – standing near two police cars. The individuals are shown at various angles and then a red line hits the male officer. The view then zooms up Arthur Avenue and follows the red line down a dark street until it reaches the end of a rifle barrel and an individual holding the rifle. The view is rotated around this individual until it is behind him and the rifle. The view then follows the red line back to the uniformed male officer. Then the picture shifts to a view of the male officer in the cross-hairs of the rifle’s scope. The scope circle is expanded until the screen is filled with a view of the male officer standing at the back of a car, with a stop sign above his head and the cross-hairs focused on the back of his head. The image shifts back to a view over the shooter’s shoulder and streaks back toward the male officer, zeroing in on him. The red line has shifted to the point on the male officer’s chest where the bullet struck [the victim]. The other persons on the corner fade from view and the male officer is shown slumping by the right front tire of a police car as the animation fades to black.”

In Gaono, the court rejected the defendant’s “akin to evidence” challenge to the animation:

“Defense counsel was able to view the animation prior to trial, and had the opportunity to dispute the accuracy of the animation with respect to the events that it depicted. In addition, the trial court made a finding that the animation had been properly authenticated. Further, even after defense counsel heard the witnesses’ testimony, defense counsel never raised any issue with respect to whether the animation accurately reflected that testimony. Beyond this, even on appeal, Gaono has not identified any way in which the animation failed to adequately represent the evidence that was presented at trial, or was otherwise misleading. Since Gaono has not demonstrated that the animation was deficient, misleading, or failed to adequately represent the evidence presented at trial, Gaono has failed to show that the court abused its discretion in permitting the prosecution to use this demonstrative aid during opening and closing arguments.”

The Board of Gang Member Photographs

The Taeotui decision describes another visual aid, a board of photographs:

“a six- by five-foot board, which showed headshot photographs of 15 individuals connected with the case, to be displayed in the courtroom throughout the trial. Eight of these individuals, including Taeotui, were identified as WDVB gang members as well as by their names.”

Officer Photographs and Transcript of Radio Calls

The Taeotui decision describes another visual aid which showed while audio of police radio calls were played. The display included the wording of the police radio transmissions, photographs of the particular uniformed officer speaking, and an American flag in the background. The appellate court rejected defendant’s that the inclusion of the American flag rendered this display  too prejudicial.

Lessons

The animation, boards and displays apparently played a big role in these trials. By animating an overview of the shooting scene transitioning to a shooter perspective, prosecutors showed how defendants opened fire in cold blood without warning. The board of photographs and gang affiliations helped the jury track the names of witnesses, and connected them to the gang’s motive for the killing. Finally, the transcripts helped jurors understand the audio of the police calls, and the photographs helped personalize the officers under fire.

More on Animations in Trial

For more on using animations in trial, you can read these recent posts:

How to Get Your Animation In Front of a Jury;

What Attorneys Need to Know About the Cal. Supreme Court’s Important Ruling on Animation Admissibility; and

Demonstrative Evidence: Half the Battle Is Keeping Out the Other Side’s

Thanks to Amy Golden, Cogent Legal’s research attorney, for her research used in this blog entry.

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