3D animations introduced in Noor trial pose questions for future cases

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor gave a glimpse at the possible future of crime scene investigations. 

3D animated videos gave authorities the chance to recreate the scene the night Justine Rusczyzk Damond was killed.

Prosecutors said the pair of 3D animated videos - created from laser-scanning and sophisticated computer software - would give jurors a “nice visual representation” of what went on inside Mohamed Noor’s squad car.

However, the judge sided with Noor’s defense team and found the presentation confusing, eventually ruling it too prejudicial for the high stakes trial.

So, what is the future of these animations in the criminal justice system?  

The videos were created from a Leica scanner and provided a unique perspective in the alley behind Damond’s home following the deadly shooting. The animation has a fly-through feel to it, and, without the benefit of drone technology, it shows viewers every angle - including distances and spacing.

“It would have given them an idea of the scene that, I think that would have been helpful in deliberations,” prosecutor Patrick Lofton said.

Prosecutors Patrick Lofton and Amy Sweasy attempted to introduce the high tech imagery in their case against Noor, including a model that shows potential bullet trajectories coming out of the squad car. Oversized digital pawns were used as plug-ins for the shooter and the victim.

But, the judge ultimately ruled the video could not be used. Criminal Defense Attorney Marsh Halberg, who wasn’t directly involved in the Noor case, agrees with the decision.

“I think the fact that things are not in scale…the fact that it feels like you're in real time watching the crime as it occurs, which is so prejudicial, it outweighs any value. I don’t think it’s good to let it in,” he said.

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension now regularly uses the Leica technology to scan, measure and document crime scenes. The operator moves the Leica to several different locations with its invisible lasers bouncing off everything it strikes, supposedly leading to imagery that replicates the physical surroundings of the scene itself. 

Lofton and Sweasy believe it’s the kind of technology that can return jurors to the spot of the crime and give them angles and perspectives to help them see what happened and who is telling the truth.

“The equipment will be used to document crime scenes in the future, so hopefully the law can catch up. The same is true with DNA evidence, and I’m sure a couple hundred years ago, with fingerprint evidence. The law can be slow to catch up sometimes,” Lofton said.

The BCA owns two of the Leica devices at a price tag of $120,000 each. Additionally, Minneapolis police own one, often used for traffic-related cases.

Officials point out that while measurements from the equipment are routinely admitted at trial, it seems to be the animating of the data where courts are drawing the line – at least for now.