Forensic Services Unit
Grand Rapids Police Department
Grand Rapids, Michigan
"This reconstruction appeared on the face of it to be not only highly ingenious but practically flawless; and it was conclusively proven to be completely wrong."
- Henry Rhodes, CRIME AND CLUES
In a sense, all areas of criminalistics and investigation are geared to the reconstruction of the criminal act. The latent print examiner can "reconstruct" the position of a suspect's hand on a door; the serologist can sometimes "reconstruct" the stabbing victim's position from stain patterns on clothing; the medical examiner can "reconstruct" the wounding of a human body. A more precise look at reconstruction, however, requires that we distinguish between the terms reconstruction, re-creation, and reenactment.
We can easily dispose of the term "re-creation," as it is sometimes misused in reference to reconstruction. The word re-creation means to form anew, especially in the imagination, to recollect and reform in the mind. This might be what advocates do in the courtroom with the spinning of tales and flights of fancy, but re-creation is not the turf of the criminalist.
The term "reconstruction" indicates the reassembling (as from remaining parts) of an item's original form, a putting together again. If a vase is broken into many small pieces, a craftsman would try to gather as many pieces as possible and attempt to fit them properly back together again. Some pieces might be missing; some fragments might fit together in more than one way. The final form of the repaired vase would, of course, depend heavily on the number of recovered fragments and the skill and experience of the assembler.
In crime reconstruction, the vase is a criminal event that has been shattered into numerous small pieces called "evidence." Given enough pieces, a reconstruction can determine which witness statements agree with the final shape of the reassembled facts and which are inconsistent with the result. As defined by the California Department of Justice, homicide reconstruction is "the process of utilizing information derived from physical evidence at the scene, from analyses of physical evidence, and from inferences drawn from such analyses to test various theories of the occurence of prior events".
As defined by accident investigators, reconstruction is "the effort to determine, from whatever information is available, how the accident happened. . .It involves studying the results of the accident, considering other circumstances, and applying scientific principles to form opinions relative to events of the accident which are otherwise unknown or are the matter of dispute".
A simple description might define shooting reconstruction as: an examination of the circumstances and physical evidence at the scene of a shooting to establish how the incident occurred. This covers both the accidental and the criminal shooting event. Note that all of these statements describe the scene (or "results") of the event. This is the difference between scene reconstruction and laboratory criminalistics, the former is generally performed in the field, whereas the latter is generally bench work.
The key, of course, is the application of scientific principles, which is (one hopes) common to both scene reconstruction and laboratory examination. The practitioner, as any good scientist, must be cautious and conservative, relying on the physical evidence when possible and verifying or rejecting the input of interested human parties, be they witnesses, participants, or lawyers. Reconstruction by its nature involves a process of elimination, where what is purported to have happened is measured against the story told by the items of evidence. With insufficient information, the investigator may not be able to determine what actually occurred; however, even with a few clues, he may be able to say what did NOT occur. This is often the framework on which a reconstruction hangs--a series of answers that eliminate those events that did not happen.
This brings us to the subject of reenactment. The word "reenactment" means to act out or perform again. It has nothing whatsoever to do with scientific principles. The distinction between reconstruction and reenactment is a critical one. To confuse the two is to confuse crime scene analysis with a puppet show. Originally criminal reenactments by police investigators were performed in the presence of suspects in an effort to encourage confessions . Today, a reenactment, whether it is two role-players in front of a jury box or an elaborate video simulation of digitalized human figures repeating programmed movements, is but a demonstration of a previously existing reconstruction.
Without a reconstruction, competent or not, there can be no reenactment. The exception, of course, is a reenactment of an event as it was seen by a participant or witness. This brings us back to the human element, the hearsay, upon which a reconstruction cannot solely rely. These sorts of reenactments are, at best, just re-creations of recollections, and have nothing to do with criminalistics or scientific principles. Reenactment producers are but skilled cartoonists, not analyzers of physical evidence. It is dangerous for the members of a jury to confuse the two terms.
The time element is important. The shooting reconstruction may be able to determine where the victim was seated and approximately where the shooter was standing at a given moment in time when the shot and the trajectory happened. The reenactment artist pretends to know the shooter's furtive steps approaching the scene, the movements of the victim's panicked head and face as he meets the shot, and the likely instant reactions of both participants during the shooting. This all-seeing, all- knowing attitude on the part of the reenactor is somewhat mysterious, because no one knows exactly what these things were like, often not even the participants. These things cannot be scientifically calculated or estimated, but the reenactor would have the jury believe that he knows, that this is how it looked and this is how it happened. The reenactment is less than bad science, it's non-science masquerading as science.
The shooting reconstruction completed by a knowledgeable investigator may take into account that Shooter X was standing in a certain area and that Victim Y was struck by a certain number of shotshell pellets from his waist to his upper back while running away at about the south edge of a parking lot; the investigator can then estimate with a fair amount of precision, given the pellet- count per load of the shotshell and the tested pattern of the shotgun, that the weapon was pointed (intentionally or not) within a couple feet to the left or right of the victim, but only at that instant in time. The events and actions leading up to and following the shooting are unknown to the investigator, except for the statements of possibly biased participants. This instant in time may be presented to the court as a diagram or model, but will only show the moment as ascertained by the trajectory reconstruction, not some imagined scenario.
The reconstruction of an automobile accident can give one a good idea about the motions of the vehicles just before and just after a collision, because these are based on speed calculations worked out from marks on the roadway, crush damage, post-impact travel, and a multitude of other items of true physical evidence. This sort of incident might become the subject of an animated reenactment, after a competent reconstruction, of course. A shooting incident, on the other hand, is seldom the valid subject of such display. No one, especially the investigator, knows for certain what the whole incident looked like from the shooter's point-of-view, the victim's point-of-view, or the viewpoint of any interested bystander. No qualified investigator would lay claim to such omniscience. The reenactor, however, seems to know it all.
The use of "virtual reality," or VR, computer simulations to reenact crimes in the courtroom has stirred up controversy in the legal community. This dissention is not so much due to the non-scientific basis of such video treatments, but mostly because the VR-programmed details so readily reflect the particular slant of the lawyer's side that produced the reenactment. The VR marionettes can be made to move, dodge bullets, shoot (maliciously or accidentally, depending if it's a prosecutor's or defense attorney's program), fall down, die, or do whatever else the programmer desires. The facts, as revealed by an examination of physical evidence, are seldom as pliable and all-encompassing as the virtual treatment. True reconstruction seldom provides all the answers to all the questions.
This, finally, is the crux of the problem. Are jurors to believe that there is a real scientific basis for a computer- animated version of a shooting? Will they be instructed by the judge that the reenacted treatment is but one possible explanation for the incident? Or will the cautious jurist not allow the reenactor's video into evidence in the first place, based on its lack of scientific foundation, its editorializing of the known facts, and its propensity to fill in the blanks that cannot really be known?
1. Chisum, W.J., "Crime Scene Reconstruction," California Department of Justice Firearm/Toolmark Training Syllabus, reprinted Association of Firearm & Toolmark Examiners Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2, April 1991,
2. Bell, W.P., "A Proposed Definition of Homicide Reconstruction," California DOJ Firearm/Toolmark Training Syllabus, reprinted AFTE Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2, April 1991, pp. 740-44.
3. Baker, J.S., Traffic Accident Investigation Manual, 2nd ed., Northwestern University Traffic Institute: Evanston, Illinois, 1975, p. 319.
4. Gross, H., Criminal Investigation, 4th ed., Ed. R. Howe, Sweet & Maxwell: London, 1950, p. 14.
5. Rhodes, H., Clues and Crime, Murray: London, 1936, p. 56.
6. Homilton, J., "Is VR Real Enough for the Courtroom?" Business Week, Oct. 5, 1992, pp. 96-105.
Send questions or comments about this essay to:Dean H. Garrison, Jr., Gunhand@aol.com
Version: 1.1, last updated: 12/18/1996