Virtual Reality Could Present Court Evidence in a New Light

A better way to litigate?

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual reality was used for the first time in a Hong Kong courtroom as a way to view evidence.
  • The use of virtual reality in courtrooms could expand in the U.S. as the coronavirus pandemic forces social distancing.
  • A legal article argues that VR could be a more accurate way to reconstruct a scene than a live jury viewing.
A jury of twelve people wear VR headsets as they sit in a jury box.
John Lund / Getty Images

Virtual reality goggles were recently used to view evidence in a Hong Kong courtroom in a technological twist on the law that could make its way to this country. 

VR headsets were used during the inquest into the death of a Hong Kong student who fell at a multi-story car park. It’s part of a small but growing movement to present evidence through VR. Experts say that virtual reality could bring new ways of presenting evidence to juries.

"There’s no doubt that virtual reality could help to explain details of a case to jurors in a way which allows them to immerse themselves in the crime scene," Jack Zmudzinski, a senior associate at software company Future Processing, said in an email interview. "The disadvantage is that there would have to be stringent measures in place to ensure that any such evidence is accurate and unbiased."

Coronavirus Forces the Issue

In the Hong Kong case, it was the city’s first use of VR during a trial. Ordinarily, the jury might have visited the site of the death, but prosecutors used goggles because of movement restrictions due to the coronavirus. Alex Chow Tsz-lok fell to his death last November during anti-government protests. 

"The simulation is extremely close to the real environment [of the car park]," chemist Jack Cheng Yuk-ki told the South China Morning Post. Yuk-ki was part of a team that reconstructed the scene using special scanners and converted the data into images that could be seen in virtual reality. 

"There’s no doubt that virtual reality could help to explain details of a case to jurors in a way which allows them to immerse themselves in the crime scene."

VR has only ever been used in U.S. courtrooms to demonstrate aspects of minor traffic accidents, Milosz Krasinski, managing director at web consulting company Chilli Fruit, said in an email interview. "The one major impediment to the widespread use of this technology comes down to cost," he added. "Depending on the sophistication of the tech used, it costs between $15,000 and $100,000 to bring a crime scene to life in this way."

An icon representing three people sitting behind a table on top of a circular shape with a glowing green outline.
bubaone / Getty Images

An article in Marquette Law Review even argues that VR could be a more accurate way to reconstruct a scene than a live jury viewing. VR could simulate the time of day and presence of physical evidence in a way that the actual scene, stripped of much of its material evidence prior to jury viewing, could not.

"One advantage of VR technology is that it enables a litigant, before the jury, to simulate a particular experience, demonstrate and test subjective perspective, and probe the structure and capacity of memory by manipulating assumptions about variables like sequence and spatial relationships," the paper’s authors write.

"As has been previously documented," the paper continues, "VR technology can be designed for use in the courtroom, to recreate crime scenes, impeach the testimony of unreliable witnesses, test assertions, and enhance a jury’s understanding of disputed events in computer-based simulated environments."

Courts Go Virtual

The coronavirus pandemic could push the use of VR in the courtroom, observers say. Courts are holding more virtual hearings because of social distancing guidelines, and the results, some say, have been positive. 

"If you’d asked most judges and lawyers in January what they thought of video hearings, they’d have expressed an instinctive, visceral, negative view of their potential," University of Oxford Professor Richard B. Susskind said recently. "Isn’t it fascinating in this time of great pressure, when judges and lawyers really needed to, how quickly they adapted? … Minds have been opened, and many people are of the view that we will never go back."

"Depending on the sophistication of the tech used, it costs between $15,000 and $100,000 to bring a crime scene to life in this way."

Fledgling lawyers are already using virtual reality to get their first taste of a courtroom. At the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard University Law School, researchers have developed virtual reality training software for some attorneys handling pro bono renter-landlord cases through the San Francisco Bar Association.

The virtual reality training "has the potential to help a lot of them overcome fear of the unknown, and fear of unfamiliar settings and practices," Gloria Chun, the director of pro bono services for the San Francisco Bar Association's Justice & Diversity Center, told Law360

Virtual reality is grabbing the attention of many gamers. We may soon see jurors donning goggles as well, though for more serious purposes.

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