- Walter Novak
- Dan Copfer (fifth from left) has an eye for detail that could convict you or get you off.
Michael Ferrante was climbing into his pickup when a man roared up in an unmarked car, drew a pistol, and ordered him to surrender. He was near the corner of East 149th Street and Lytton Avenue in Collinwood, a neighborhood of sagging duplexes and boarded-up apartment buildings, and his wife was sitting in the truck's passenger seat. No way in hell was he about to surrender. Ferrante reversed quickly, smashing into a parked car. Then he rocketed forward, swerving around the man with the gun. By the time Ferrante hit the Shoreway going west, seven police cruisers were on his tail. His two right tires had burst, so Ferrante drove on his rims in the middle of rush-hour traffic. As he approached the off-ramp for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a police officer caught up with the truck and ordered him to surrender. [See "Freeze, Grandpa!," July 3, 2002.]
It turned out that the man with the gun was a police detective. Ferrante was arrested and spent the night in jail. Then he slapped the city with a civil-rights lawsuit, alleging that he was wrongly assaulted and falsely imprisoned. The city fought back with criminal charges, accusing Ferrante of trying to run over two police officers.
Thirteen months after the car chase, Ferrante and his lawyer, Richard Koblentz, sat across the table from county prosecutors in Judge Joe Russo's chambers to haggle over what evidence would be allowed in court. That's when the county unveiled its secret weapon: a simple CD-ROM. On it was a video re-creation of the entire incident, from the police point of view. The video showed officers driving to the scene, cornering Ferrante, pulling their guns, and ordering Ferrante to surrender. Digital photographs, enhanced with bright red arrows, showed the arc of Ferrante's truck as it careened toward the detective.
Koblentz objected, arguing that the visuals would prejudice jurors in favor of the police. Judge Russo overruled him, saying that the video was no different from an attorney's sketch of the scene on a chalkboard.
Five minutes before he was scheduled to walk into the courtroom, Ferrante grudgingly agreed to settle. "I would've thought the system would've been a little more fair," he told reporters as he left the courthouse.
The maker of the CD-ROM, meanwhile, felt mildly insulted. "There's no way you could draw a scene like this on a chalkboard," says Dave Voytek, who also drove the truck in the re-creation of the incident. "It had a split-screen, live-action video, with sound and complex computer graphics. I found [the chalkboard comparison] laughable."
Voytek is the art director of Visual Evidence, a Cleveland company that creates props for court cases. It's a small but growing business. At a time when homes are loaded with video electronics, most court cases remain stuck in the Perry Mason era when it comes to presenting evidence in interesting ways. Displaying a gun will always get attention. Beyond that, most lawyers' idea of dramatic courtroom presentations involves firing up a PowerPoint program to flash boring slides of text on a wall. "We live in a TV-and-video age," says Dan Copfer, owner of Visual Evidence. "Jurors need to be entertained."
Entertainment does not come cheap. Visual Evidence's basic rate is $150 an hour, and bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are not uncommon. So if Visual Evidence is working on a case, it's a pretty good bet that someone faces the possibility of losing millions of dollars or of spending a lot of time in prison. When Sam Sheppard's son sued the county in 1998 for wrongfully imprisoning his father, County Prosecutor Bill Mason hired Visual Evidence to make the most of 40-year-old documents and photographs. When the Lonz Winery terrace collapsed in 2000, killing one person and injuring dozens, the victims and their families hired Visual Evidence to build a small-scale re-creation of the accident scene. The diorama included barrels of wine made out of tomato-paste cans. "In scale, the cans were the exact same size," Copfer says. "We lucked out on that."
Lawyers recognize that such detailed presentations can have an enormous effect on juries. "The ability to present complex information in an engaging way is tremendously powerful," says David Barnhizer, professor of law at Cleveland State University's Marshall College of Law.
But just as TV and movies can make almost anything believable, glitzy presentations of evidence can make one side's version of the truth seem like The Truth. In the Ferrante case, for example, perhaps Detective Peters made up the story of Michael Ferrante nearly running him down. After all, how could he possibly shoot out two tires of a pickup that was speeding straight for him? Ferrante's lawyer knew it didn't matter. If jurors were allowed to watch a movie shot from the cops' perspective, the case was lost.
On another case, Visual Evidence represented the family of a man who died when a high-pressure hose broke free from an oil derrick. The hose danced on the ground for about 20 seconds before it leaped up and decapitated the man. But the case had a weakness: Nobody actually witnessed the accident. "So we presented our best guess, that this is one possibility of what could have happened," Copfer says.
The computer animation they created was enough to persuade the drilling company to settle out of court. "It happens all the time, where the other side agrees to settle after they see our presentation," Voytek says. "It's annoying. We work on something for a month or six weeks, and then no one ever sees it."
Still, some lawyers worry that Visual Evidence just gives wealthy parties one more way to game the system. "The danger with digital technology is that you can subtly and deliberately shape the evidence in a way that presents a false message," Barnhizer says. "When the judge and the lawyers aren't sophisticated enough to understand what the technology can do, it can create serious distortions."
Copfer and his team of four artists are fully aware that their power lies in the details. In 2001, they were hired by a bronze casting company defending itself against a potentially expensive workplace-safety suit. Two former employees at the plant had been operating a spinning centrifuge when the lid blew off. They were sprayed with liquid bronze heated to 1,800 degrees and received severe burns from their shoulders to their ankles. The company and the workers accused each other of ignoring safety rules.
Voytek's first attempt at recapturing the scene was a three-dimensional, computer-animated video that showed the machine emitting a geyser of super-hot bronze droplets and the workers cowering as their clothes caught fire. The company worried that the video might cause jurors to empathize too much with the workers. So Voytek replaced the lifelike images of the workers with gray, blocky figures and turned the spray of fiery bronze droplets into bland yellow boxes.
Which side was right? To Voytek and Copfer, that's beside the point. Their client won.
"I used to worry about this, thinking that I was working for the wrong side, the bad guys," Voytek says. "Now I don't think like that anymore. My job is just to make the best presentations I can for our clients."
Opposing lawyers sometimes call within minutes of each other to retain the company on the same case, so Visual Evidence works on a first-come, first-served basis. Copfer agrees that it's not much, but it's the best concession to fairness he can make.
"You can have a terrible case. But if you present it well, you can win," Copfer says. "We've had a lot of cases over the years that we should have lost, but we won because we were able to out-present them. Is it fair? No. But that's just the way the system operates."