From Rodney King to George Floyd, How Video Evidence Can Be Differently Interpreted in Courts

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Yves here. This post is a useful primer on how simple techniques like focusing and framing (aka narration) influence viewer perceptions of video segments. There’s a reason documentaries are an art form! I’m sure the film-makers and critics in the commentariat will have much to add.

One device used by the prosecution in the George Floyd case was to show the video of Floyd’s entire time in Cup Foods before he walked outside and eventually arrested. Floyd was a big, muscular man, wearing a tank top that day that showed off his imposing arms. Presenting an extended clip of him wandering around Cup Foods, sometimes waving at people and looking harmless despite his bulk, likely helped defuse the defense effort to depict Floyd as a physical threat.

By Sandra Ristovska, Assistant Professor in Media Studies, University of Colorado Boulder. Originally published at The Conversation

News media coverage of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd highlighted the role of video as a “star witness.” Jurors in this trial saw footage from cellphones, police body cameras, dashboard cameras and surveillance cameras. In his closing arguments, prosecuting attorney Steve Schleicher even told the jurors, “Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw.”

For the past eight years I have been studying the use of video as evidence both in international human rights courts and tribunalsand in state and federal courts in the U.S. As a media scholar, I pay close attention to how people interpret video as evidence. One of the things I have found is that the argument “seeing is believing” is not as intuitive as it sounds.

‘Who Do You Believe?’

On March 3, 1991, a Los Angeles resident named George Holliday saw, from his apartment balcony, four Los Angeles policemen beating a Black man. He recorded the violence on video and eventually sold it to a local TV news station. This bystander footage of the beating of Rodney King quickly made headlines in the U.S. and around the world.

Holliday’s video also became crucial evidence in the trial of the officers on charges of assault and excessive use of force. Lead prosecutor Terry White ended his closing arguments with a final showing of the video, asking the jury: “Now who do you believe, the defendants or your own eyes?”

The jurors responded by acquitting the officers, discarding the seemingly obvious interpretation of Holliday’s video. They instead believed the skillful frame-by-frame analysis of the defense attorneys, who argued that the video was not evidence of police misconduct but of a justified response to King’s allegedly frightening actions.

One could ask why the jurors did not believe their own eyes. It is thus important to note that seeing involves not only what the eyes see, but the experiences and ideas that the viewer brings to the image. What people see is affected by what they already know and believe, a phenomenon that art critic John Berger in 1972 enduringly termed “ways of seeing”.

Cultural and Cognitive Influences

Race is one factor that shapes seeing.

In 1952, psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon famously described an incident in which a white boy felt frightened just by looking at a Black man. That some might find the mere appearance of Black people threatening speaks to a long history of racism that has framed people of color as less than human. In other words, seeing is influenced by power and other differences that shape the conditions of how we as humans experience the world.

Cognitive factors also have an impact on seeing. Not everyone who sees a video interprets it in the same way. Selective attentionis one cognitive process that accounts for different ways of seeing. For example, a psychology experiment found white participants more likely to notice a Black man appearing in the middle of a video than a white man.

Camera angles affect perception as well. Another study found when the camera is focused on the suspect, viewers tend to find a videotaped confession more voluntary, and thus less coercive, than when the camera is focused on the officer.

Even the associations that a video brings to mind can influence seeing. In Scott v. Harris, a prominent 2007 Supreme Court case involving a police car chase that left a Black driver paralyzed, video evidence was an important part of the trial and the decision. Writing for the majority, which sided with the police, Justice Antonin Scalia said the case was “clear from the videotape,” and that “what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury.”

During the oral arguments, Justice Scalia even compared the dashcam footage with the famous fast and violent police car chase in the movie “The French Connection.”

In a lone dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens sided with lower court judges who disagreed with this interpretation. “This is hardly the stuff of Hollywood,” Justice Stevens wrote. The video “surely does not provide a principled basis for depriving the respondent of his right to have a jury evaluate the question whether the police officers’ decision to use deadly force to bring the chase to an end was reasonable.”

This case serves as another reminder that seeing is not intuitive. Courts may use video evidence differently, even within the life span of the same case.

Safeguards for Rigorous Visual Interpretation

Video is neither a transparent nor an opaque form of evidence but an opportunity to ask important questions, just as with any other type of evidence.

Some of these questions cannot be answered by any one video on its own. Not all court cases feature multiple videos that authenticate one another, but Derek Chauvin’s trial relied on numerous videos from different cameras and locations, each providing a distinct perspective on the crime scene. These videos corroborated one another, helping reconstruct what led to George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020.

The trial also featured 37 witnesses for the prosecution. Among them was Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who testified that Chauvin’s actions violated relevant department policies. For the jury, the multiple videos and witness testimonies proved the murder charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Bystander, bodycam and dashcam videos of policing can be powerful forms of evidence that help jurors bear witness to an event from the complicated scenes of its occurrence. Yet judges, attorneys and jurors may see and treat video in varied ways that can lead to inconsistent renderings of justice. U.S. courts thus need safeguards to ensure that video evidence is rigorously assessed during trial.

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  1. fresno dan

    It seems to me that even with all the video, that the defense could have easily won the case. If the prosecution had not been trying to win the case (so many police prosecutions are so poorly presented I can’t help but wonder about the true intentions of the prosecutors), if their hadn’t been a knowledgeable and persuasive pulmonary expert, if the thin blue line had held, it seems to me that a conviction was anything but assured.
    Local elections matter – here in Fresno the county sheriff is elected, and the local city council. If their power to influence the outcome of WHO is appointed to high police posts, as well as prosecutors, than all the body cams could be for naught if the attitude of the electorate is that the police can do no wrong. It takes concerted public concern, effectuated through WHO is elected, to start making it clear that police misconduct will not be tolerated. Our police don’t come from Mars or through an interdimensional portal – they are hired, trained, and expected to operate in a certain manner, and that there are policies as well to determine if laws have been broken. it has to be a public issue that police misconduct is not being addressed properly, and the public consensus has to be that the present policies and procedures are not working justly.

  2. Timh

    “all the body cams could be for naught” if the material can be selectively released or destroyed without any consequence to anybody on the police side of the fence.

  3. Timh

    Another thought… cams should stream to an evidence locker by default, plus on-cam storage so police can review (and where no signal).

    I’d also make it a very high offence for police to approach in a non-emergency situation with non-working cam.

  4. David

    We’re used by now to the idea the “eye-witness” testimony is generally worthless, since cognitive psychology tells us that most of what we are seeing, and almost all of what we remember, is an artificial construct within our skulls. For that reason, prosecutors in most advanced nations no longer bring cases only on the basis of eye-witness evidence, since it has been shown to be so unreliable.

    But articles like this are useful also for challenging the notion that technology is a foolproof solution either. We all bring our prior assumptions to bear on whatever we see, even if those presenting the video evidence are trying to be fair. Which is by no means always the case and, at least since the advent of relatively cheap news gathering technology in the 80s, it has been possible to manipulate peoples’ interpretation of images, often quite simply. For example, I remember some years ago being shown two versions of a piece of news footage transmitted by different TV stations in the Ivory Coast at the time of the Civil War. There had been violence and shooting in front of one of the main hotels in Abidjan, and French troops had been called later to secure the area. That was the actual sequence of events. But that evening one of the various TV channels (all owned by one political party or another) broadcast the same footage, but with the sequences reversed, so that the French troops were seen arriving, followed by gunshots and people being killed. Since there were no time-stamps on the films, this particular piece of misdirection was quite successful.

    Things have got a lot worse since then, and I would be reluctant to take any video evidence at face value these days.

    1. Jason

      cognitive psychology tells us that most of what we are seeing, and almost all of what we remember, is an artificial construct within our skulls.

      What a life-affirming notion. /sarc

      If that’s the “progress” that these academic disciplines advance, I’ll settle back into my crappy Roman Catholicism, thank you very much.* Cognitive psychology seems even more monstrous.

      * I won’t be doing this, of course. It’s said for illustrative purposes.

  5. David in Santa Cruz

    Cognitive Bias is one of the bedrock features of the human brain. Video “evidence” is as subject to the bias of the viewer as any other evidence being interpreted by a juror through the lens of his or her own experience. What’s more, the falsely omnipotent perspective that we’re given by fictional representations on television and film only amplify our certainty that our biases have been confirmed by the “evidence” before us. As a lawyer I have presented to scores of juries and this plays out every time…

  6. juno mas

    Cognitive factors also have an impact on seeing

    The Rodney King trial was moved out of LA County to the adjacent Ventura County (Simi Valley).

    Simi Valley, at the time and even today, is a mostly white suburb of Los Angeles. The community then and now is a predominately “law and order”, middle class area that is home to many LA city and county police/sheriff. The beating Rodney King endured was invisible to the all white jury. (I imagine these same jurors thought O.J. was assuredly guilty.)

    What you think is what you see.

  7. James E Keenan

    As political philosopher Julius Marx once said, “Who do you believe? Me or your own eyes?”

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