The Investigators: Forensic Animation

Does It Work? Should It?

Forensic animation is causing quite a stir in courtrooms around the country. It has become the latest high-tech way to present evidence in criminal cases.

But not everyone likes the new tool. Defense attorney Joe D'Andrea claims a 72-second animation sent his client to prison for life. "There's no doubt that the animation was his demise," says D'Andrea.

The Lackawanna, Pa., district attorney, Andrew Jarabola, says it helped him win the case.

The case in question involved Michael Serge, a 54-year-old retired cop living near Scranton, Harold Dow reports.

Serge was a decorated police detective with the Scranton police. He was also an alcoholic with a history of domestic violence.

"He became very nasty when he drank," says his son Michael.

"It was just very hard to live in that house. It was very tense. You never knew when he was going to blow up," says his daughter Jennifer, who says her mother was a "very good person. My best friend, really. She lived for us. And she lived for her grandchildren. That was what made her happy because she was so miserable with her husband."

She says that several times she had to break up fights between her mother and father. "He's said several times, you know, 'I'm going to kill your mother.' He said it so much, we said, 'Oh yeah, sure' and didn't believe it."

On Jan. 15, 2001, Serge shot his wife, also named Jennifer, twice. He claimed that she had come at him with a knife, and he was only defending himself.

Serge was arrested and charged with murder. There was a knife on the floor next to the body. But prosecutors said that the knife was planted after the murder.

To prove that in court, Jarabola would have to rely on forensic experts to analyze and interpret the physical evidence found at the crime scene. Knowing that jurors can often be confused by that type of testimony, he decided to try something that had never before been used in a criminal case in Pennsylvania: A 3-D animation of the shooting.

The raw data from the crime scene, and from photographs, was sent to 21st Century Animation in Dallas, where it was loaded into computers. Animators there worked closely with forensic investigators on the Serge case to craft the finished animation.

D'Andrea argues that the animation is too realistic. "The faces were too humanlike. We would have rather stick figures," he says. He believes that the animation is so realistic and so dramatic, that jurors can easily forget that it's only a theory of what happened.

D'Andrea says that there was blood spatter on her hand and on the knife, but none on the palm of her hand. According to his theory, the absence of blood on her palm suggests that Jennifer Serge was holding something when she was shot – namely, the knife.

D'Andrea was bothered that the animation didn't show the knife in early frames: "In the later frames you'll see it, next to the body, which gives the impression to the jury that it was planted there."

The defense could have produced their own forensic animation portraying their theory. But it was too expensive, D'Andrea says. The Serge animation cost approximately $15,000 to produce.

The jury deliberated less than two hours before declaring Michael Serge guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Jurors in the case say the animation was effective.

"If there was a doubt in your mind and you couldn't picture something, it would help give you a perspective on how to look at things differently," says Mary Jo Amendolaro.

While the jury may still be out on how useful a tool forensic animation really is, the Serge family is satisfied that justice was served.

"I think he's a ruthless killer and he belongs where he is for the rest of his life," says Michael Serge, the son. "Now he'll suffer the way he made my mother suffer all these years."
  • David Kohn

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