Research & Education

Forensic 3D printing found to improve jurors’ understanding in courtrooms

The Cranfield Forensic Institute is investigating the benefits of AM

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In court hearings, it is of the utmost importance that jurors fully understand the case at hand so they can come to the most-informed and, hopefully, right decision. Researchers from the Cranfield Forensic Institute in the UK believe that 3D printed models could offer a solution, providing a better understanding than 2D photographs or digital 3D visualizations.

In a recent study, a team from the institute found that a 3D printed model used in a mock courtroom setting helped the mock jurors to improve their understanding of technical language by up to 94%, compared to 79% with photographic images.

In the experiment, 91 mock jurors were randomly assigned one of three visual evidence types—a 3D printed model, 3D visualization and photograph—to illustrate a case about a head injury victim. In all three evidence formats, the victim’s cranium was represented. After assigning the visual evidence, each participant was asked questions to assess their understanding of the case. The results showed that the 3D printed model was the best at conveying and illustrating the technical details of the case.

“Evidence presented in court cases needs to be clear so members of a jury can understand it,” explained Dr. David Errickson, a lecturer at Cranfield Forensic Institute. “There has been a rapid development of 3D printing in the last decade across industries such as manufacturing, healthcare and dentistry but there are very few examples of 3D printing being applied in forensic scenarios in the published literature. The documentation of crime scenes using a terrestrial laser scanner is not a new concept, but there is limited literature on the printing of these models. In order for 3D printing to be used in forensic science, particularly in courts of law, the discipline needs a recognisable evidence-base that underpins its reliability and applicability.” 

3D printing cranfield forensic institute
(a) A photograph, (b) 3D reconstruction, (c) 3D printed model of the cranium from Stanground South, Peterborough (Image: Cranfield Forensic Institute)

The advantage of the 3D printed models comes in large part from their tactility. The printed forensic models, which are based on precise 3D scans of physical evidence, can be held and manipulated by jurors, allowing a higher degree of inspection.

As Rachael Carew, a researcher in the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London who is also working on the project, said: The creation of physical 3D replicas allows for higher levels of interaction as users can hold, rotate, feel and inspect the object, something that is not possible with traditional 2D photographs or virtual 3D models. 3D replicas could also allow for the visual representation of evidence that otherwise would not be able to be presented in a court of law, such as human remains, and can be acquired from scanning techniques that are non-invasive and non-contact, helping to maintain the integrity of the original material.”

3D printing has other potential forensic applications both inside and outside the courtroom: it can be used to reproduce crime scenes for courtroom presentations, as well as by police to reconstruct the elements of a car accident. The research team also points to museums, where 3D printing can be used to reconstruct and archive historic forensic material.

In their immediate research, the Cranfield team are now refining their 3D printing technique to promote the technology’s use in courtroom settings and are calling for further research into the broader potential of AM for forensic sciences. As part of their ongoing research, the team is working with 3D scanning specialist FARO Technologies UK.

“Within a very short time after a crime, urgent steps must be taken to avoid deterioration of the scene and loss of evidence,” added Marcus Rowe, Public Safety and Forensics Account Manager at FARO Technologies UK. “3D forensic documentation captures the entire scene before the site is compromised. With this digital evidence, forensic scientists can examine the scene at a later date for lines of sight, a bullet trajectory or a blood spatter analysis. 3D scanning turns crime scene sketches into a digital forensic tool.”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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