On the night of February 27, 1991, San Francisco porn-movie king Jim Mitchell drove to the home of his younger brother and business partner, Artie, in Corte Madera, Calif. Minutes later, Artie was dead, and a dazed Jim was arrested walking away from the scene.
The district attorney didn't buy Jim's story that he shot eight times in self defense, frightened by a beer bottle an intoxicated Artie wielded in a dim hallway. But there were no eyewitnesses. So, the prosecution persuaded the judge to let the jury watch a video of Artie's death.
This was no candid videotape, however. In the first-ever use of vr in a criminal trial, a ballistics expert recreated the event, complete with bullet trajectories, on a personal computer using computer-aided design software from Autodesk Inc. In the animation, a ghostly figure peeks from behind a door. The figure emerges and walks stiffly down a hallway. A red tube pierces, then exits, the body. The figure continues to walk until another red tube strikes its forehead.
The video, which was created after analyzing evidence found at the scene, had the desired effect. Last Feb. 19, the jury convicted Jim Mitchell of manslaughter and sentenced him to six years in prison. He's appealing, in part because of the videotape, which his attorney, Nanci Clarence, calls "wizardry that has no place in a court of law."
The Mitchell case highlights the ethical dilemmas inherent in vr. Reality is, after all, more than sophisticated software. To the defense's chagrin, for instance, the figure in the tape doesn't wield his beer bottle in a remotely threatening way. In short, vr may raise a thorny question for judges: Even in the best of simulation, can reality be manipulated unfairly?