3D Printed Evidence


In January 2015, the show NCIS: LA featured 3D printing in its episode “In the Line of Duty”. The storyline followed the team as they investigated an attempt on the life of the American ambassador to Tunisia. The Tunisian crime scene was still “hot” and unsafe (and was 6000+ miles away), so the team instead took detailed photos, had the site digitally modeled, and 3D printed it. A whole room! At full scale! With furniture, curtains, textured rugs, bodies, etc. The effect was eerie, not unlike the burial of Pompeii. “In the Line of Duty” wasn’t 3D printing’s network TV debut, and if legal blogs are to be believed, it won’t be its final role.

Legal and forensics professionals around the world are beginning to invest in 3D printing technology to support their cases. Companies like Haag 3D Solutions and Lazarus 3D offer a full range of interconnected services like imaging, modeling, and 3D printing. Thus far, the technology has been used for crash reconstructions, personal injury cases, and instances of structural or industrial accidents. Even greater potential is seen in the use of 3D printing in relation to patent infringement, medical malpractice, and forensic investigations à la NCIS: LA).

The application of 3D printing across these different courtrooms has been similar in one aspect: the printed object allows juries to see, touch, and assess in ways they weren’t previously able to. In cases of crash scenes and structural accidents, the 3D printing is utilized to make intelligible that which is otherwise unintelligibly large and complex. An example: in 2013, Fat Pencil used 3D printing to visualize a cutaway detail of a bridge footing. The technology is applied in reverse for medical, forensic, or patent suits – the subject matter is often so detailed, specific, and miniscule that traditional means of explanation can drag on and on and still remain unclear to laymen jurors. Example: data from CT-scans and MRIs can now be used to create 3D models of unique patients’ body parts. These can be printed and presented as evidence in discussions of injury and medical procedures.

scaling graphic

Image courtesy of Jannine Hanczarek.

So will we now be going full steam ahead with 3D printing evidence for the courtroom? Perhaps eventually, but the introduction of new technology in a conservative profession takes time. These are just a few of the questions that came to my mind while researching this article:

  • Will the technology (the newness, flashiness, expense, novelty) distract juries from the cases being made?
  • What will happen with all of the printed models? And all of the test prints? How can these be responsibly disposed of?
  • Will 3D printed body parts be considered sufficiently detailed and accurate to be deemed admissible by the court?
  • How should we (or the law) consider 3D printed human remains? They are detailed and individual, but are they still human?

Yana Stannik was a Designer and Senior Designer at Fat Pencil Studio from 2017-2022.