From TV shows to our courtrooms

By Andrew Koubaridis

ESR is developing new technology to help solve crimes more quickly and give jurors detailed 3D tours.

Futuristic technology of the sort seen in TV shows such as CSI will give New Zealand a world-class forensic science system. Photo / Supplied
Futuristic technology of the sort seen in TV shows such as CSI will give New Zealand a world-class forensic science system. Photo / Supplied

Images from a murder scene are beamed straight to a laboratory, and jurors are given a virtual "tour" of a scene, allowing them to get up close to bloodstains and other evidence.

Crime scene testing reveals fingerprints on surfaces that have been barely touched, and DNA technology delivers test results within hours rather than days.

It sounds like a storyline from TV crime programme CSI, but it could soon be a reality in New Zealand.

Environmental Science and Research (ESR) research designed to revolutionise forensic work at crime scenes.

The Future Crime Scene Project is developing and testing new technologies to help solve crimes more quickly and give jurors detailed 3D tours of crime scenes.

And it will enlist the expertise of an Oscar winner who worked on the Star Wars and Avatar movies.

Forensic development manager Bjorn Sutherland, who is the project leader, said: "The aim is to develop a new range of thoroughly tested and evaluated technologies that enable ESR to deliver forensic science to police and the justice system at a level which is up with the best in the world."

Mr Sutherland said technology was enabling ESR to develop forensic science in ways that have not been possible until now.

ESR was working with overseas law enforcement agencies but it was also using local experts, particularly with 3D graphic capability.

"We are working with 3D visualisation expert and Academy Award winner Sebastian Marino on advancing our 3D laser scan developments to enhance presentation of the crime scene in the courtroom.

"With Sebastian Marino's assistance we are utilising 3D rendering and data management techniques developed for the movie business and applying them to the real world."

Mr Marino told the Herald it was very different from the film work he had done.

"What we do in film is have an artist recreate a scene but it's important [that] what ESR presents in court is not an artist's rendition of a scene but an actual measured scene."

What stood out for him the most was the gravity of the subject matter.

"Using this technology to tell an important story is fascinating."

ESR science leader Dion Sheppard, who has been with ESR for 13 years, said six homicide trials had used some of the crime scene presentations.

"The next stage is the 3D data development where we can move freely through the crime scene and [are] not restricted to only viewing the images from where the photos were taken [meaning] we can show some of the complex 3D forensic analysis like blood stain pattern and firearm trajectories that are complex 3D events we are trying to explain and portray to people.

"In the trials we have used the initial presentations [and] you can really see the engagement from the jury - they really sit up and take notice, they're right there with you."

The public, who are used to crime dramas like CSI and NCIS, would be impressed with the cutting-edge technology.

"In some ways it's almost an opportunity to live up to people's expectations of what they expect from watching TV ... There's a real opportunity to put that wonderful stuff they see on TV back into real-life courtrooms."

Mr Sheppard said the real-time link with a crime scene could make an ESR forensic scientist available to any first responding police officer who could use that technology, and would make consulting with colleagues, even overseas-based experts, quick and easy.

Work the Wellington ESR laboratory was doing - looking at technology that had traditionally been lab-bound with the intention of taking it to the field - would mean faster information flow to investigators, making it "less likely the trail would go cold", Mr Sheppard said.

Barrister Rachael Reed said the new technology could have real benefits.

"It can provide clarity for jurors and counsel in a case, for example, when there is a complex scene with multiple sites and various exhibits and articles or pieces of evidence found in different positions in different sites, it can be important to work out exactly where it's located, the angle it's located and [how] it's connected to other items."

But accuracy was a key issue, she said.

"You can understand if an angle is slightly misrepresented how key that could be for projectile angles and the like."

She said having the material peer-reviewed by defence scientists was also important and technology had to be accessible to lawyers and their clients.

- NZ Herald

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