VR robots could help teleport juries to crime scenes

Juries are seldom allowed to visit crime scenes. There are exceptions, usually in difficult, high-profile murder cases such as the O.J Simpson trial in 1995 in the US and the Jill Dando murder trial in 2001 in the UK. But asking jurors to become fact finders in this way comes with myriad problems, from possible biases to the logistical and security challenges of taking them to the crime scene.

A site visit by the Dando jury needed a convoy of five vehicles to transport the jurors, lawyers, judge and their police escorts to the scene, passing through police barricades surrounded by neighbours, journalists and other spectators. It became a media spectacle. But rapidly progressing technology in imaging, robotics and artificial intelligence may be able to avoid these issues by virtually teleporting judges and jurors to crime scenes without even leaving the courtroom.

Such visits can help juries to assess the prosecution and defence cases. For example, in the murder trial of music producer Phil Spector in 2007, the defence lawyers claimed a large fountain at the scene caused a witness to mishear Spector admit to the crime. By visiting the scene, the jury were able to judge how likely this was, as well as gaining a better understanding of how the sequence of events may have unfolded.

But when a jury visits a crime scene, it may not be in the same state as when the crime originally occurred. During the Simpson trial, for example, there were serious complaints regarding the scene being staged and items rearranged. And the longer the time after the crime has taken place, the greater the chance that things will have changed.

Courts have traditionally relied on forensic science units to produce visual evidence in court as an alternative to crime scene visits. Crime scene investigators (CSIs) gather and use evidence to recreate the precise sequence of events that occurred during the course of a crime. Part of this reconstruction process is photography and sketching, with the latter still largely done by hand.