Courtroom visual aids are getting an immersive upgrade.
Virtual reality can help us explore the Nile river, paint in a 3D space, or even get a quick workout from home. Now VR may also help us in one more area that actually makes a ton of sense—the courtroom.
When it comes to showing a judge, jury, or witness what it’s like to be at the scene of an accident or crime—to see the incident as accurately as possible—VR may be just what legal professionals have been looking for. And that’s what one Chinese courtroom is doing—taking a big step to introduce VR into the courtroom for the first time.
On March 1st, a Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court became the first court in China to introduce VR during a criminal case. A HTC Vive headset was setup in the courtroom, transporting the only witness of a murder back to the scene of the crime.
The witness, named in court as Mou Dong, virtually stood in the middle of the crime scene while a projector screen in the courtroom simultaneously showed everyone in the courtroom what he was seeing, including judges and lawyers.
The case on trial according to Chinese publication Legal Daily involved a 30-year-old suspect named Zhang who is charged with murder. According to the translated summary, on September 13, 2017, the suspect came to an office building in Haidian District in Beijing to argue with his 19-year-old girlfriend, Liu. During the dispute, the suspect allegedly stabbed his girlfriend to death after he cut himself with a knife three times.
“I was standing behind Liu at that time. Zhang was asking something from Liu. And then he started to injure himself,” said Dong, the victim’s colleague, while using the Vive controllers to explore the simulated environment.
The introduction of VR in this Chinese courtroom is part of an “evidence visualization system” developed by the local court. In this case, VR was able to show the courtroom the exact place the witness was standing and also describe how he witnessed the crime from his vantage point. Aside from the VR aspect, the visualization system also includes a newly developed computer program that allows lawyers to present evidence with higher quality and efficiency, which will replace a traditional PowerPoint slideshow. It’s expected to be implemented in courtrooms across the city of Beijing.
While VR is no different from existing visual aids used in a courtroom today like graphics, photos, or video, visual exhibits should always be as truthful and accurate as possible. VR can be such a powerful medium and should go through multiple layers of fact-checking to be admissible in court; especially if jurors are going to draw conclusions from these VR experiences and issue life-altering verdicts.
VR use in courtrooms is growing at a cautious pace. But an early example where VR was used to win a case took place in Europe by the Bavarian State criminal office in Munich. A VR version of the Auschwitz concentration camp was used to assist with prosecutions.