Law: 3-D degree murder

Virtual reality could have a real impact in cases of miscarriage of justice.
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The Independent Culture
LAWYERS SEEKING to reverse miscarriages of justice are turning to virtual reality simulation programmes.

Such 3-D reconstructions have already been used in American courts. Earlier this year virtual reality was used for the first time in a British case when Private Lee Clegg had his conviction for the murder of Karen Reilly, shot at an army checkpoint, quashed. Now the Criminal Cases Review Commission has contacted the company which produced the Clegg sequence with a view to using the technology in some of the 200 cases under review.

Clegg's lawyer, Simon McKay, says virtual reality particularly lends itself to shooting cases: "It's an excellent way of illustrating extremely complex series of movements. And there is terrific scope in exploiting it." In November, when Private Clegg is retried for murder, at Belfast Crown Court the virtual reality presentation of the evidence will again be central to the case.

Historically, it has always been criminal defence lawyers who have found new ways to use cutting-edge technology. Many new scientific techniques have evolved from cases like those of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.

It was during one of Mr McKay's many visits to Northern Ireland that he first stumbled across the possibilities of virtual reality technology. "I was sitting in a Belfast hotel room and saw an ITN piece on the TWA plane disaster. They had reconstructed it in graphic form, you saw the plane flying, the nose drop off and then it plummeted to the sea." He rang up ITV and was put in touch with television graphic design company, The Look. They had to work quickly on a simulation acceptable to both judges and prosecution.

It is really only this type technology which is capable of detailing the kind of precision needed to illustrate the flight and trajectory of a sequence of bullets each fired at intervals of a fifth of a second. The Look was asked to map just four of a total of 30 odd bullets fired on the fateful night.

Although there is no precedent in UK courts for the use of this kind of 3-D reconstruction, the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal allowed the technique on the basis that it should be considered on its own merits. However, in the Clegg judgement the three appeal court judges said that virtual reality reconstructions were limited in their importance because they were not conclusive. Nevertheless, Mr McKay points out that immediately after the court had seen the first run through of the simulation the judges wasted no time in asking for a second viewing. He adds: `It was extremely helpful because it did enable everybody to see what the possible movements of the girl's body were in the back of the car."

Other lawyers may have to wait before they can adapt virtual realty to their cases. The technology is still too expensive to have widespread use. The Look costs it out at pounds 1,000 a day, and people on legal aid are not going to be able to afford it.

The legal profession in this country is notorious for being slow to catch on to state-of-the-art advances in information technology. However, in America, 3-D simulation is frequently used to illustrate car accidents, serious personal-injury cases and other liability claims.

Mr McKay is sure he will be using virtual reality again. In fact he already has a case which he describes as "spookily similar" to the Clegg case, in which a woman was shot dead in the back of a car.