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Edinboro University prof, student bring computer-generated animation technology to courtroom during murder trial

12/19/2012

It’s not just about Disney or Pixar anymore.

Edinboro University’s highly regarded computer animation program – already leading students to a variety of successful careers in film production – recently made its debut in an Erie County courtroom during a highly publicized murder trial.

Prosecutors used computer-generated animation produced by an Edinboro professor and student to allow the jury to view not only the external dimensions of the apartment building where the murder took place, but also the internal structure. The animation clearly illustrated the scene for the jury in a way that still photographs, or even standard video, could not.

Several months ago, Erie County Assistant District Attorney Brian Krowicki reached out to Assistant Professor of Computer Animation Steven Carpenter with a request: With the late fall murder trial of Rachel A. Kozloff approaching, could Carpenter use computer animation modeling to help the jury better understand the apartment building in which Michael Henry was murdered last April 12?

Carpenter was up for the challenge. Teaming with senior computer animation student Ryan Dugan, a graduate of Erie’s Cathedral Preparatory School, the professor answered the call with a professional quality prosecution exhibit that gave the jury a better understanding of the scene.

“We met at the building with District Attorney Jack Daneri and took extensive measurements,” Carpenter explained. “We diagrammed the entire building, and Ryan modeled it.”

Carpenter said the production, which “took off the outer walls,” allowed jurors to see the interior of the building while highlighting the four entryways leading to the second-floor apartments. Prosecutors used the production to show the jury that the defendant could not have entered or departed the building in the way she described.

“It’s a fairly large building, and it would have been difficult to give the jury members an understanding of it from just photographs. What we produced was very clear to them.” Carpenter emphasized that he and Dugan used just basic textures in their production so as not to make the animation distracting. “We just wanted it to be clear and understandable for the jury.”

As a result of the animated production, the defendant’s story changed somewhat during the trial, and the jury’s verdict was guilty.

“We were very impressed with Professor Carpenter, Mr. Dugan and the entire Edinboro University computer animation program,” ADA Krowicki said.

In a letter to Carpenter, copied to Edinboro University President Julie E. Wollman, District Attorney Daneri and Krowicki wrote, “The computer-generated diagram of the crime scene your department created was critical to the jury understanding the building’s layout. This, in turn, allowed the prosecution to highlight numerous pieces of evidence relating to the whereabouts of the defendant, victim and witnesses at the time of the murder.”

Daneri said he plans to seek the same kind of assistance again.

“This was our office’s ‘maiden voyage’ with such technology,” he wrote. “Much appreciation to you and Ryan for your cooperation, initiative and – patience. I fully expect our prosecutors will take advantage of the benefits computer generated imaging provides in the courtroom. We hope we can call on your department in the future. Again, thank you for a job extremely well done.”

Carpenter said the project will be a valuable addition to Dugan’s portfolio when he graduates in the spring.

Edinboro’s Art Department animation program has long been recognized as one of the best in the nation, with the names of many graduates appearing in the credits for virtually every major studio’s animated film production in recent years.

Yet, Carpenter agrees it’s not just about working for Disney or Pixar.

“There are many fields and practical applications for careers in computer animation,” he said. “This experience shows just one of those applications.”

The computer animation professor said he will consider answering the DA’s call again, especially because of the valuable practical experience it provides for students.

“In fact, we’d like to develop a class on forensic animation.”

Learn more about Edinboro University’s computer animation program and more than 100 other majors by logging on to www.edinboro.edu.