Creating And Using Forensic Animation


Autopsy Report and Bullet Paths:

I had never considered creating a forensic animation as demonstrative evidence before I was hired to represent Shanandoha Garcia in a murder case in 1997.  It was the autopsy report and my client’s explanation of the shooting that caused me to develop a theory that might be supported by the physical evidence.

The victim in this case was a six-foot three-inch, 305 pound Samoan-American male gang member.  The bullet paths on the autopsy report made it look as though he was shot from three different directions.  My client was accused of shooting him three times in rapid succession while seated in the driver seat of a “lowered” 1987 model Ford Thunderbird.

The bullet that caught my attention was listed as shot #3 on the autopsy report.  The bullet entered just below the left armpit and was described as traveling from left to right, front to back and downward 45 degrees with the horizontal plane and 10 degrees with the coronal plane.  The bullet path was consistent with my client’s description of the victim leaning into the window of his car after having cut Shanandoha’s face with some sort of knife.  Shanandoha described the struggle saying that the victim tried to pull him out of the car through the window and then the victim tried to get the keys out of the ignition.  That is when Shanandoha saw the weapon that was dropped by the front passenger onto the middle console of the car and shot his assailant three times in rapid succession.


I began searching for a forensic expert to test my theory that the bullet path could establish that the victim was bending over and leaning into my client’s vehicle at the time he was shot.  The second shot hit the assailant in the neck after he recoiled from being hit by the first bullet and the third bullet hit him in the collarbone as he was collapsing.  I interviewed several forensics experts before settling on Dr. John Thornton.

Dr John Thornton reviewed the autopsy report and all of the physical evidence and agreed with my theory of the sequence of the bullets and that the bullet paths establish the position of the deceased at the time he was shot.  One piece of evidence that came out during the trial and helped to support the defense theory was the jacket that the assailant was wearing at the time he was shot.  There were bullet holes that traveled up the left sleeve of the jacket to the point of the entry wound.  The jacket was covered in dried blood and had not been examined before trial.  There was no mention of this fact in any of the police reports.

I was concerned about having a model by which we could demonstrate to the jury the story that the bullet paths tell of the instant of this young man’s death.  Dr. Thornton brought out a Styrofoam manikin and wooden dowels, which was the standard demonstrative evidence used up to that time.  I was looking for something that would include the dimensions of the lowered Ford Thunderbird and also included the height and dimensions of the driver’s side window relative to the height and weight of the deceased man.  We even talked about building a frame for the driver side door set at exactly the same height as it would have been when it was attached to the suspect vehicle.

I wanted the jury to be able to visualize the sequence of events and the relative size of the 6-foot 3 inch, 305-pound man reaching into the car window at the time he was shot.  I believed that if I could get this image before the jury that it would be easier to convince them that my client reasonably feared for his own life and acted in self-defense.

Dr. Thornton said that he had a computer program that could create the images of a Ford Thunderbird and of my client seated in the drier seat as well as an image of his assailant, the deceased.  He said that he could have a model completed in three weeks and told me the cost.  Excitedly, I agreed.  However, when I returned three weeks later and saw the poor job, I thought, “the guy across the hallway from my office could have done that in ten minutes.”  The guy from across the hall!         


I still needed Dr. Thornton’s expert testimony since he agreed with my theory of the case, the sequence of the bullets and the position of the deceased at the time of the shooting.  I walked across the hall and spoke with QB White about creating a computer generated model.  I knew QB from the time that he moved into my building and had seen the animated characters that he created from illustration and storyboards to 3-dimensional models to animated characters.  So, I was a little familiar with the process.

I told QB about Shanandoha Garcia’s case and about expert, John Thornton.  I have QB a copy of the autopsy report and photos from the coroner’s office, and I began “directing the film in my head.”  I wanted to begin with the picture from the coroner’s office.  I asked QB if he could download the photo and then create a wire frame character based upon the exact dimensions of the subject in the photo.  Then, I wanted to lift the wireframe character up from the coroner’s table and magically put flesh and clothes onto the character.  I wanted the character to maintain some of the main features of the person who was killed, but not with too much detail.  Then, I wanted to show each of the bullet paths as they were described in the autopsy report and mark them with a bright line.  I was hoping that these lines could remain “fixed” even if we changed the body position of our model.  “Not a problem.” QB said, as he listened to my wish list.

I knew that QB could make an exact model of a 1987 Ford Thunderbird, having seen a television commercial that he completed for Sequoia Institute of Technology.  Knowing the exact measurements of the vehicle and the height and dimensions of the driver’s side window only made the work easier as far as QB was concerned.  But, I wanted the subject to walk up to the driver side of the Ford Thunderbird, make a slashing motion to the face of the driver and then reach into the open window of the vehicle in an effort to pull the driver out through the window.  And then, I wanted to show the driver reaching for a gun and shooting the assailant three times to show the series of gunshots and the paths of the bullets.


I thought that I was asking a lot. But, QB White’s response was “Sure that will be easy.”  We spoke of time frames and how much money and both were manageable.  QB went well beyond what I expected.  He set up a live re-enactment of the shooting using a fixed digital movie camera and some friends as actors.  He did this to see if the sequence of events “made sense” and what it might look like once created in the computer.  What QB realized from the fixed position of the camera was that much of the activity was lost because of what you could not see because of the car.  His solution was to create a “see through” car frame, while maintaining all of the exact measurements and details.  It was genius.



Before getting started with the creation of the digital animated video, I was concerned about the legal standards for the admission of the video and the possible objections to its admissibility.  I was very surprised that there were so few hurdles to overcome to admit demonstrative evidence.

  1. The demonstration is relevant (Evidence Code 352)
  2. The conditions of the demonstration and those existing at the time of the alleged occurrence must be substantially similar.
  3. The evidence will not consume undue time or confuse or mislead the jury.

For a demonstration to be relevant it must have a “tendency in reason to prove or to disprove a material fact in controversy.”  The testimony of the expert witness was that the bullet path can be interpreted to prove that the subject was leaning forward with his left arm extended at the time he was shot and hit with the first bullet.  This was consistent with my client’s claim that the subject was reaching into the car window at the time that he fired the weapon.  The expert testified that the force of the bullet and the subject’s reaction caused him to recoil and turn around “counter-clockwise” over 90-degrees before being hit by the second bullet which entered his neck below his right jaw in a downward angle and coming to rest between his spine and above his left shoulder.  The subject continued to recoil in a counter clockwise direction and began to collapse when the third bullet hit his right collarbone and ricocheted upward at a 10-degree angle.


Once I was confident in the accuracy of the model and the depiction of the shooting, I sent a copy of it and a list of expert witnesses to the District Attorney.  This included Dr. John Thornton as a forensic evidence expert on gunshot wounds and QB White as a computer graphics design expert and expert on a computer imaging program used called “Lightwave.”


The district attorney challenged the admissibility of the video during motions in limine.  There was a short discussion.  I assured the judge that all of the images were “built to scale” with exacting measurements.  They accurately depict the conditions that existed at the time of the shooting.  The video was relevant to demonstrate the position of the victim (assailant) at the time of the shooting.  That I had an expert witness who would testify about the sequence of the shots that killed the subject based upon forensic science and that I believed that he would testify that the deceased was reaching inside the vehicle at the time that he was shot.  This was consistent with the defense theory of self-defense as opposed to the prosecution theory of a drive by shooting.          The judge indicated that the video was admissible as long as I was able to lay a proper foundation for admissibility.


The model was complete and it became clear that we could use parts of the model to create poster boards that would be useful in laying a foundation for the admissibility of the video.  I asked QB White if he could generate a frontal view, back view, side views and a top view of the subject with a printed description of each bullet path exactly as described on the autopsy report.  QB White downloaded the images onto a disc, which I took to a printer to print onto a large format paper and glued onto foam core.  I then used the printed images to lay the foundation to establish the relevance of the bullet paths in determining the position of the assailant at the time he was shot.

Once QB White created the model in the computer, we could use the model to create perfect poster images with the description of the bullet paths from the autopsy report onto the posters.  These posters were then used and marked as evidence to establish that the angles of the bullet paths were exactly as described in the coroner’s autopsy report.  I used the large poster board images in cross-examining the coroner.  I used the coroner to lay the foundation for the admissibility of the video.

The coroner testified that as a medical scientist, he could was not qualified to testify to the sequence of the shots.  He did testify, however, that a forensic scientist would be trained to possibly determine such things.  One unexpected turn of events was that the coroner looked at the poster board picture of one of the bullet paths and testified that the angle of the bullet path depicted in the picture was incorrect.  I invited him down from the witness stand and correct the angle with an orange marker pen.  It was clear to me then that, he could not visualize anything in 3 dimensions.  How could we expect a juror to be able to visualize any better than he?


Once I realized that the Coroner could not visualize angles in 3D (3 dimensional space), I decided to call QB White to testify as an expert witness.  First, I called Dr. Thornton to testify about the creation of the computer model “under his supervision.”  He correctly identified the program that QB used, (in this case, Lightwave).  Then, he testified that QB White would be the person who was most familiar with the computer assisted design program and its capabilities and limitation.

QB White connected his laptop computer to a television and used it as a monitor for the jury.  Then, he was able to “go inside of the model,” into the wire frame 3-dimensional image.  We used the exact measurements for the autopsy diagram of the pullet path, which was described as being 9 inches from the “coronal,” the top of the subject’s head.  QB clicked the “curser” at the top of the model’s head and then drew a line down 9 ½ inches exactly.  He explained to the jury that the measurement was accurate to 1/1000th of an inch.  Then, he rotated the model around 180 degrees and clicked at the top of the model’s head and drew another line 11 and one half inches down and two inches from the midline.  QB created a bright line between the two points representing the bullet path.  Then, he demonstrated functions of the program that allowed him to determine the angle of this bright line to within 1/1000th of a degree.

Finally, I asked QB to rotate the figure in “’3-dimensional space,” which he did for the jury.  The bright line representing the bullet path maintained its integrity no matter how the figure was manipulated.  This live demonstration was very powerful and removed any potential objection to the use of the model on the basis of the accuracy of the conditions at the time of the incident in question.

The use of a computer assisted design tool that is based upon science and physics is amazingly helpful to lawyers. The tool itself is accurate to within a thousandth of an inch and to a thousandth of a degree of angle.  Once the digital model is created it can be “de-constructed” and “re-constructed” as a demonstration to the judge and to the jury.  The images may be transferred to a 2 dimensional poster to which the exact language from the autopsy report can be printed describing each bullet path.  Then, the poster can be used to examine the coroner in order to lay the foundation for the admissibility of the computer model and of each of the poster diagrams.  In this case the coroner laid the foundation for the admissibility of the posters and for the video.


Showing the jury the video reenactment of the crime for the first time was very dramatic and powerful.  We dimmed the lights in the courtroom and made sure that each of the jurors could see the television screen.  The Judge had already seen the video.  However, even he got into the drama of the moment and repositioned himself so that he could view this “piece of evidence” with the jury.  Then, QB White hit “play.”

The greatest thing about creating a piece of demonstrative evidence like this is, (once you have it marked and admitted into evidence) it goes into the jury room for viewing during jury deliberation.  It becomes the single image in every juror’s head.  –  Steve Nakano