3d Printing

How 3D Printing Technology Can Help Lawyers

The recent mini-series retracing the infamous OJ Simpson trial got us thinking about how far technology has come in aiding the legal profession to solve crimes. If Marcia Clark and her team had had access to, say a 3D printer, might they have had an easier time displaying crime scene visuals and things like Bruno Magli footprints? We will never know that answer, but we do know that 3D printing technology can provide some incredible tools for today’s lawyers and law enforcement personnel to obtain justice for victims of violent crime.

3D printing takes a flat image with little perspective or scale and produces an accurate-to-scale model, which bridges the gap between the expert imparting the information and the layperson who needs to understand it, visually and palpably.

Here are three new 3D printing applications that are helping the legal profession today: 

Crime Scene Reconstruction

The murder trial of James George Stiffler wrapped up in Helena, MT last month and charges were dismissed after a 10-2 hung jury outcome. However, the ten favoring acquittal of the defendant credited a one-of-a-kind 3D-printed model of the Stiffler home—believed to be the first time such a model has been used in a US murder trial—for assisting in their decision-making.

Utah-based WhiteClouds, the world’s largest full-color 3D print services provider, created an exact scale model of the home and all its furniture, in 2,105 layers of sandstone, down to the tiniest details, such as where “doggie gates” had been tripped and creation of the immediate topography (both important to the case).

This architectural model was created at the request of defense attorney Quentin Rhoades. His client was charged with homicide and the purpose of the model was to show the jury the locations of his client and the victim during the altercation. The model was created to exact scale using floorplans of the home and exact measurements taken from the furniture. The furniture was also measured and printed in their exact locations.

The entire model was printed in sandstone; however, at the request of the attorney, we created a working front door which was printed using a plastic-like material (UV-cured resin).

The model also shows the topography immediately surrounding the front of the home as this was important in the case. We created the topography based on measurements provided. This precise replica, according to attorney Rhoades, “provided what a 2D rendition could not: the size and proximity of rooms and doors and the ‘maze-like” quality of the old fashioned floor plan. The level of detail brought the scene to life for the jurors.”

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Forensic Anatomic Models

Presenting anatomic information obtained from antemortem or post mortem CT/MRI scans or physical human remains, particularly those of children who suffered traumatic injury can be disturbing for some lay individuals, which in turn could bias a jury. Complex anatomic relationships, medical-related terminology, and radiographic data is not easily understood by the lay public which includes prosecutors, law enforcement personnel, or a jury. Working with Dr. Kieran McGee from the Mayo Clinic, we are using 3D printing to communicate an injury or trauma in a vivid specific, life size way. This not only partially “sterilizes” a potential gruesome picture, but also relays the pertinent information—bringing the scans and photographs back to the physical world—in a way that is very easy for a layperson to grasp and even hold in their hands. For example, a photograph of something as horrific as a screwdriver through a child’s eye that would make a jury shudder, can be viewed more “neutrally” in a true to life 3D printed model of the victim’s skull with the weapon in place during the CT scan. The model conveys much more information and much less emotion than a photo; the size of the skull is truly representative of the age of the person and can be turned 360° to provide a fuller view of the injury. This tool provides lawyers a more “real world” glimpse into what happened.

In another example, a 60 year old male was stomped to death by his son. A postmortem CT scan was performed, which shows the details of the multitude of fractures, but is not easily understood by non-medical personnel. On autopsy the bones will simply fall apart once the skin is removed, making this injury very difficult to photograph and understand by the lay public. A 3D printed model was requested to show the scope of the injury to all involved.

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The last photo of the model shows the direction the head was in when it was being stomped and you can see the skull is shifted from the nose down as it was separated from the rest of the skull due to the blunt trauma.

Reconstruction of Destroyed Evidence

The clock is always ticking on “natural” evidence upon which nature can so easily wreak havoc. Footprints in dirt or sand that can be washed away are an excellent example. Traditionally, investigators and scientists have used materials such as dental stone to create casts of footprints, Mikrosil for tool mark impressions, and other materials that can replicate the surface of an object either by impression transfer or curing. Although these methods are common and accurate, footprints and tire prints are prone to rapid deterioration from the elements. Time can often be a factor and in many remote areas where resources and equipment may not be readily available, first responders may have nothing more than a digital camera. Utilizing advanced photogrammetry software such as PhotoModeler Scanner1 or 3DReality2, a dense and accurate surface model can be created. Importantly, 3D models are actual replicas of the footprint rather than a surface that is cast as a “negative.” The created digital model can be converted into a readily acceptable format for 3D printing and in the absence of better casting materials, time, or resources, laser scanning, or photogrammetry can save the day for law enforcement.

Vehicle accidents represent another example where more than just photographs are required to do a proper investigation. Although more and more law enforcement personnel have adopted laser scanners to scan vehicles as they are found at an accident scene, some scenes require even more accurate visualizations to give the most precise account of how a vehicle found itself in its final rest position. Insurance companies often need evidence to provide the most thorough assessment of a collision or other incident and don’t want to risk erasing any chance of further inspection and all evidence with it.

With 3D printing, an expert witness can physically hold a model of a crushed car and point out areas that were of importance. A physical 3D replica preserves more of the evidence for jury viewing. The physical replica or replicas in some cases can show the actual extent of damage.

Some in law enforcement and the legal profession see a time where no criminal defense or prosecution will move forward without the inclusion of a 3D printed model. In the immediate future, we see the technology continuing to provide accurate real life data that can be used in all aspects of criminal law including education, research, legal proceedings. As the technology continues to grow the legal community will become more familiar with the potential uses of this powerful tool.

About Jerry Ropelato and Dr. Jonathan Morris

Jerry Ropelato and Dr. Jonathan Morris
Jerry Ropelato is CEO and Founder of WhiteClouds, the premier software platform to deliver 3D experiences and products for mass markets and owner of the world's largest full-color 3D-printing facility. Jonathan M. Morris, M.D. Co-director of the 3D Printing/Anatomic Modeling Laboratory, and a member of the Division of Neuroradiology where he specializes in minimally invasive thermal ablation of tumors.

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