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Forensic Photography

Updated on August 25, 2010

The purposes for which photographs are produced in evidence in legal proceedings are broadly:

To provide a record of something that it would otherwise be difficult or impossible for the Court to see, e.g: scenes of serious crime as they appear before anything has been disturbed; vehicles which have been involved in collisions, photographed before any repair or salvage has been done; roads, buildings and other distant places which may be many miles from the Court; injuries which will have healed and be no longer visible by the time of litigation; copies of documents, the originals of which cannot be made available.

To present the results of an experiment or test (in many cases made in a laboratory) that it is not practicable to demonstrate in Court, e.g:, photomicrographs; photographs taken by ultra-violet fluorescence; photographs illustrating some test or measurement; comparison photographs demonstrating the simi larities between finger-prints, footprints, tool marks, fired bullets or cartridge cases, etc. To show something that only photo graphy can reveal (infra-red photographs and photographs taken with unusual filters).

This article is not concerned with how such photographs are taken; it deals only with their use as evidence in the Courts.

Photo by Julie Elliott-Abshire
Photo by Julie Elliott-Abshire

Presentation

There must be no handwork on either negatives or prints to be used in evidence. Simple shading control during printing is permissible, and often indeed essential. But there must be no spotting, even where the filling up of a pinhole or two could not possibly lead to any misrepresentation. It is a legal axiom that not only must justice be done, but that it shall be manifest to all present that justice is being done. In the same way photographs should not only be free from faking; it must be clear that there could be no possibility of faking.

First and foremost, this calls for clean working in the darkroom. But if in spite of it the negative or print shows a flaw, the flaw must remain, and must be disregarded or explained in Court as need arises.

There should be no reconstruction of the scene for photography. No attempt should be made to replace anything inadvertently displaced. The photographer should simply record what is in front of his camera and explain, if necessary, any discrepancy between what the photograph shows and what witnesses describe.

There is no room for ingenious technical tricks in this field; the mere fact that photographs are being used to illustrate points of evidence implies a belief that the camera cannot lie, so all work should be as straightforward as possible. (Photographs produced under laboratory conditions of subjects normally invisible to the human eye are, of course, excepted). And the photographer should always assume that, while the members of the Court may know everything about the law, they know little or nothing about the technicalities of photography.

The following example illustrates this point: in a legal dispute over a road accident, one side produced photographs showing the view which the defendant would have had round a bend if he had been driving on his correct side of the road. The pictures were taken with a lens of normal focal length (i.e., 45-50 degree angle of view). The other side objected that there were only thirteen white-line dashes visible in the pictures, although it was agreed that there were in fact seventeen dashes between the camera position and the turn of the road. It required considerable explanation to establish that the photographs were a fair and accurate representation of what the defendant should have seen, and that no photograph could ever show all the foreground in front of the camera position unless the lens had an angle of view of 180 degrees.

Similar difficulties can also arise from the use of photographs of scenes artificially lit, e.g: streets at night, A lay court will expect the photographs to show neither more nor less-than an eye-witness could have seen. They will not usually be able to appreciate the effect of the cumulative sensitivity of the photographic emulsion, by which the amount of detail recorded in a photograph of a dimly lit scene depends entirely on the exposure time.

Court Procedure

The usual procedure for taking the evidence of a photographer witness runs something like this. First he takes the oath (unless he has conscientious objections to doing so, when a form of declaration may be substituted) and gives his name and profession or official status. He then states where, when and of what he took the photographs, that he made prints, which he produces, and that the negatives are in his possession. (He should take the negatives with him for inspection if requested, but they are rarely asked for.) He will then describe what the photograph, or each photograph of a series, shows. Finally, he may be cross-examined to bring out any point that the other side feels will be to their advantage. (The "other side" simply means the side that did not call him as a witness).

There is no recognized standard type of print for use in evidence. Single prints may be mounted on thin card with a brief descriptive caption. A series of photographs may be printed with a wide margin on the left-hand side, and then numbered and bound together bookwise in a light cover with a page of descriptive captions at the beginning.

The size of prints which should be produced depends on two things: perspective considerations, and the fact that they will be examined in the hand. The perspective should be as far as possible correct when the picture is held at the normal viewing distance. Prints should also be of a size convenient to hold. The size meeting both requirements best is generally something between 5 x 4 ins. and 12 x 10 ins.

The number of copies produced depends on the type of Court hearing the case. Where there is no jury, e.g:, in a Magistrates' Court, County Court or before a Coroner sitting without a jury- four copies should suffice: one copy for each side in the case, one for the Bench and one for the witness himself to refer to. In trials by jury twelve copies are needed.

Captions

Captions must be rigidly factual and descriptive; there must be nothing to imply the conclusion which one side or the other is seeking to establish. In a road accident case it would be proper to caption a picture:

"View along the Weston-Eastwich road, taken from point A looking in the direction of B." A caption which added, "... showing that B is clearly visible from the correct side of the road at A," would be objected to by the Court, and the photograph might be declared inadmissible as evidence.

With photographs of a more technical type, such as are used to illustrate comparisons of finger-prints, tool marks, etc., it is permissible and indeed often necessary to indicate the important points by means of, for example, ruled lines or arrows. But if any of the indicating lines unavoidably obscure any detail, even unessential detail, there should always be a plain unmarked copy of the photograph for reference.

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