Jannine Hanczarek is a Technical Illustrator at Fat Pencil Studio.
Eyewitness testimony used to be the gold standard for proving guilt in a criminal case. In fact, many people still think that memory is like a tape recorder that is played back each time a witness testifies. But scientific research tells us that memories are constructed rather than recorded, and over time may come to include imagined or suggested information. And then there's the problem that people don't always tell the truth. Attorneys often seek to undermine the credibility of witnesses by questioning their motives. Fat Pencil Studio provides a way to test the reliability of witness accounts by simulating what they actually could have observed.
In late 2016 two men forced entry into a home to extract payment for a drug deal gone bad. The defendant ("Teal") had sent a large sum of money to purchase marijuana for sale out of state, but the goods were never shipped. So he brought a friend ("Yellow") and attempted to collect the goods in person while holding the occupants at gunpoint. When there wasn’t enough to cover the advance, Teal began collecting other valuables to make up the difference. At first the homeowner ("Orange") complied, however the unexpected return of his son caused chaos and confusion. Orange's son had arranged the drug deal, and upon seeing Teal in the house he immediately turned and fled. Yellow ran after him and returned a short while later, stoking fear that he had killed the son. It was at this point that Orange attempted to wrestle the gun away from Teal. In the ensuing struggle Orange was fatally shot in the head.
One of the house guests ("Green") claimed he observed Teal “squaring off” and firing directly at the victim. The prosecution argued this was evidence that the killing was willful and deliberate, both necessary conditions for an aggravated murder conviction.
Teal claimed that during the struggle for the gun, he was shoved back into a door jamb, causing the gun to go off accidentally. In other words, "I killed him, but I didn't intend to." This would imply that Teal is guilty of murder, but not aggravated murder.
Fat Pencil was hired by defense counsel to help visualize the scene, investigate what witnesses could have observed from reported locations, and test possible scenarios for how shots were fired.
As is typical with murder cases, police investigators collected a laser scan survey of the crime scene, allowing us to view and measure the position of key evidence such as bullet casings and blood stains on the carpet. We used the scan data to create an accurate 3d model of the house and furniture, adding color-coded human figures to represent people who were present at the time of the shooting.
To better understand Teal's story for how the shooting occurred, we visited him in jail. The defense attorney and investigator asked questions while we used the 3d model running on a laptop to visualize his responses. The ability to shift perspectives, and move objects around in real time makes it possible to get much more detailed information from incarcerated defendants (who aren't generally available for a screen sharing conference call). The 3d visualization is even more critical in cases where language translation is needed.
We also used the 3d model to facilitate meetings between attorneys and forensic experts. This allowed the team to reach consensus on what the evidence (blood stain, bullet casing, and injury locations) suggested about the body positions just before shots were fired. All this information allowed us to create a series of snapshots to describe the shooting sequence.
The next step was to test visibility. How much of this shooting sequence would it have been possible for Green to observe from his position in the armchair? He certainly could have seen the initial confrontation, but the eventual position where he claimed to see Teal "squaring off" to fire the fatal shots was not visible from the armchair, even if he was leaning forward. Does this mean that Green was lying? Maybe so... or maybe after all that happened that night, and the intense investigation that followed, he constructed a memory – one that he believed to be true, but was shown to be inaccurate when seen in context of the evidence.
The jury found Teal guilty of felony murder, but not aggravated murder. This was a high-stakes case because an aggravated murder conviction can be punishable by death in the state of Oregon, even if the verdict is not unanimous!
The defendant entered a home with a loaded gun, intending to rob the occupants. Was he wrong to rob these people? Sure. Was it reckless to bring loaded guns into the house? Oh yeah. Is it illegal to buy drugs to sell across state lines? Most definitely. Was there sufficient evidence to prove that that he intended to murder someone that night? No, not in this case.
Thank you Fat Pencil, for all your excellent work! The visual story was instrumental in persuading the jury to find our client not guilty on the aggravated murder counts.