The Presentation of Video Evidence in Court Can Hold Sway in Cases Like the Beating Death of Tyre Nichols

Yves here. Some of the in-depth accounts of the George Floyd trial described the way the prosecutors put great effort into how to use the videos of his death by police to explain how the officers were culpable. Video does not explain itself. That’s why editors are so important in the movie business. This post provides some interesting technical details about how different handling of video information will produce different viewer responses.

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

Body camera and surveillance footage depicting the Jan. 7, 2023, fatal beating of Tyre Nichols was key in raising national awareness and prompting protests for police reform. It may now play a crucial part in any prosecution of those accused in his death.

Five Memphis police officers have been charged with murderand are set to appear in court on Feb. 17. Additionally, the U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Nichols’ death.

For over a decade, I have studied how video evidence has helped civil rights and human rights claims get recognition and restitution in the U.S. and around the world. As a media scholar, I am especially interested in understanding the power and limitation of video evidence inside the courtroom, especially as video is now estimated to form a part of four in every five criminal cases.

I have found that video does not provide a unified, objective window onto the truth. Rather, jurors may perceive the depicted events differently – based, among other factors, on how the video is presented in court.

How Video’s Presentation Can Influence Perception

Video can turn its viewers into witnesses, giving them the impression that they are transported directly to the event in question. Even judges may believe that the opportunity to see a video is equivalent to those in court seeing the real event. In the words of one district judge, it is as if the court had “witnessed with its own eyes.” Yet a growing body of interdisciplinary research has shown that there are many influences on how people perceive events recorded on video.

The speed at which video is played in court, for example, can affect people’s judgments. Videos played in slow motion, compared with normal speed, result in greater judgment of the intention of the person in the depicted action. Sports replays are an easy way to understand this point – slowing down events can make a foul in soccer or football seem more egregious.

Additionally, even the type of video people see can change their perception of what it shows. Across eight different experiments, viewers of body camera footage were less likely to judge the police officer as having acted intentionally than those who watched the same incident captured on a dashboard camera.

The variations in the perception of intent were driven, in part, by the distinctive camera perspective. A body camera records from the police officer’s point of view, so it is unable to show the officer. On the other hand, a dashboard camera is mounted on a police car, thus it can show the officer’s actions from a wider angle and not necessarily from their viewpoint.

Confirmation Bias

The discrepancies in perception and the judgments that ensue from the type and presentation of video are significant: They can be highly consequential in a criminal court trial where intent needs to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Furthermore, these cognitive biases may be particularly pernicious to people of color within a legal system that already discriminates against them. The perspective of body cameras, for example, may worsen racial biases in viewers of videos depicting police use of force. A study shows that white viewers perceived dark-skinned civilians more negatively than light-skinned individuals when the body camera made them the subject of primary focus.

A common assumption is that repeated viewing can assist people to focus on information they may have missed on the first viewing, seemingly helping them better evaluate the depicted event. During trial, jurors indeed have multiple opportunities to see the same video.

However, an eye-tracking study demonstrates how people engage in visual confirmation bias: Their eyes follow a very similar pattern of visual attention, making them overconfident about their initial perception of the video in question. In other words, multiple viewing opportunities are ultimately unlikely to reduce biases that may already exist.

The proliferation of video is therefore challenging the existing legal practices regarding its presentation and use in court.

Equal and Fair Justice in an Age of Video

The Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that video now appears in about 80% of criminal cases. Yet U.S. courts, from state and federal all the way to the Supreme Court, lack clear guidelines on how video can be used and presented as evidence.

As a result, the U.S. legal system provides substantial discretion in evaluating video evidence by ignoring a range of biases that may shape visual perception and judgment in court.

The footage of Tyre Nichols is yet another reminder that video can help people bear witness to traumatic events. However, the way video is presented in court can greatly influence jurors’ perceptions.

As more and more encounters with police officers that are proving deadly are making their way into criminal and civil courts, I believe, the legal system needs mechanisms that can ensure consistency and fairness in the presentation and evaluation of video as evidence.

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  1. bassmule

    “Sociologist Forrest Stuart argues that in fact, video never speaks for itself. It is always embedded in context. In the King case, attorneys for the officers were able to frame what seemed to be an obvious reality to the casual viewer in an entirely different light, one favorable to the police. Defense attorneys focused on the figure of King in the video, leaving the officers in the background. Each movement by King was interpreted for the jury by police experts as potentially dangerous. LAPD instructors interpreted the department’s policies, providing an expertise that overwhelmed much of the video evidence.”

    Why Didn’t the Rodney King Video Lead to a Conviction?

  2. fresno dan

    So I saw a documentary (Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies and the Internet) on Netflix about the infamous swatting in Kansas that caused the death of Andrew Finch. I was outraged at what happened when I first learned about it.
    I had never seen the actual video of the incident. And after having seen it, I am apoplectic, not so much because of the video, but at the obstinate refusal of government authorities to hold the police accountable in any way shape or form.
    We live in a sea of propaganda that the police are brave, competant, truthful, and always act in the public interest. And I actually believe most police, most of the time, behave satisfactorily. But in this case, even with the video, and unbelievably egregious conduct afterwards (there was no medical attention for Andrew Finch EVEN THOUGH IT WAS APPARENT HE DID NOT HAVE A GUN for 17 minutes), the people in charge in Kansas refuse to hold the police accountable.
    Video will not help people discern reality if they are ideologically opposed to reality… as long as police are protrayed as perfect instead of sometimes being outright criminals, such will be the outcome.

    1. Tim

      Frankly, the judicial system is biased by the natural jury selection pool being filtered to include primarily conservative and older oriented pool (students, and 9-5ers often get excused for their personal circumstances).

      So you have a bunch of people that aren’t familiar with the newly understood reality of just how little police can be trusted, and instead they hang on their every word and police report as gospel.

  3. Carolinian

    Any video depiction of reality is not the same as reality since you, the viewer, are unable to interact with said reality, hear all the words, see the surroundings and context, the before and the after. This is perfectly obvious although those putting out videos of, say, the civil war in Syria or the war in Ukraine would like for us to ignore it.

    Janeane Garafolo used to have a comedy routine about how movie trailers always started out with the announcer proclaiming “in a world!” Movies, fiction or nonfiction, are in the world creation business and if they are good it will be a believable world if not necessarily true. What they depict can be highly entertaining, informative and useful as long as we keep this basic caveat in mind.

    1. LawnDart

      “Any video depiction of reality is not the same as reality since you, the viewer, are unable to interact with said reality, hear all the words, see the surroundings and context, the before and the after.”

      I would extend this observation to live video feed as well, in such circumstances as testimony– it’s dehumanizing, and it creates a psychological distance between participants: It’s just too easy to see someone going totally Milgram with this.

      My social media experience was brief, as I was sickened by what it brought out in people that I thought I knew, and I know that many have experienced the same. What if this phenomena emboldened a judge or jury to act in a similar manor to what we see on social media, even subconsciously, because of a similar detachment from participants, especially the camera-shy ones?

      Perhaps someone here can better articulate this concern than I…

  4. t

    There’s an episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Lois, the mother, is on camera causing an accident but she swears there was another car. Another tape, from another angle is found, and everyone agrees to never show her the tape that proves she was, as always, right.
    (The Lake Bell movie “In a World” is pretty good, BTW.)

    1. Rip Van Winkle

      I always had a crush on Jane Kaczmarek since she played Connie Lehman in The Paper Chase show 42 years ago.

  5. MT_Wild

    There’s a u tube channel online called donut operator. He reviews footage and gives his opinions on police shootings from his perspective as a former cop and swat team member. It’s definitely pro-cop, but informative.

    One of the most informative elements is he will often play the video as shown (edited) in the media, and then run the unedited version.
    Some of the edits are far from honest reporting, and clearly shift the narrative.

  6. Kengferno

    As someone who makes their living making documentaries, specializing in ones using archival and news footage, I know the power that video can have to shape opinion. I also know how to manipulate that footage to get the opinion I want. And that means, I completely agree with the author. There definitely needs to be standards in a courtroom for dealing with evidentiary media. The ability to edit it is dangerous. Media should only be shown in it’s raw, unaltered form.

    I was a juror on a case where a young black man wearing a hoody was accused of mugging a white businessman on a dark city street at night. The road was dark because the streetlight was out. The man saw the guy approach and pass him on the opposite side of the street. The mugger crossed to the businessmans side of the street then came up behind him. In the courtroom, the prosecution produced a giant 4 foot square photo of the corner where the mugging took place. Not surprisingly, the photo was taken at mid-day on a sunny day. The prosecutor made it seem that the victim was able to get a VERY clear look at the mugger before the crime. But in reality, there was NO WAY that he was able to see the face of the guy across the street due to the time of day and the busted streetlight. However, the defense took one look at that photo and caved, pleading her client to the crime. Afterwards, when the case was settled the judge asked us jurors if we had any questions about the trial. I asked about the legality of the photo as it was obviously rigged to manipulate the jurors view of the case. The judge said that it was sketchy, but legal and that it was the defenses job to refute it. That they instead pled out made the case that maybe the defense attorney hadn’t really served their client.

    I always remember that when it comes to the presentation of evidence. Context is everything and rarely is that evident in a courtroom.

    1. LawnDart

      “The judge said that it was sketchy, but legal and that it was the defenses job to refute it.”

      “I, ___ ___, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as ___ under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.”

      Might have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye with the law on account of that “justice” thing. Hopefully he was actually guilty and not a victim of coersion.

    2. Late Introvert

      Thanks Kengferno, I was going to post about all the video editing work I’ve done over the years to “clean it up”, to make it less embarrassing for those involved, but you articulated it better and have more direct experience to the topic. Video lies, even if it is not edited, but especially if it is.

  7. Isla White

    A useful discussion but bodycam footage is ahead of the curve for much of the world’s policing. In EU countries like Spain and Portugal the crime is filming the police at work – not their misbehaviour.
    A recent initiative to allow bodycams hinges entirely on whether the police involved in an incident had ‘decided’ to wear the cameras and ….. had ‘decided’ to switch it on.

    In this instance it was the Portuguese police filming themselves beating up immigrants that saw daylight.
    Likewise the Spanish Wolfpack that included a policeman and a soldier – filming themselves raping a ‘terrified’ woman for their Whatsapp group after a Pamploma bullfight … one Spanish judge not even registering the multiple rape and only a single crime of stealing the woman’s phone.

    GNR behaviour “absolutely unacceptable”

    Seven GNR officers are accused of a total of 33 crimes, for humiliating and torturing immigrants in Odemira, Beja, in 2019, acts that they themselves filmed, reported CNN/TVI.

    On 16 December, the GNR clarified that two of the seven officers are serving a suspension sentence decreed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while the others await sanction measures.

    According to the GNR, three of the agents of the Territorial Detachment of Odemira are repeat offenders, after having been “involved in aggression against Indonesian individuals” in 2018.

    The clarification comes after a CNN/TVI investigation that revealed the accusation of seven GNR officers of a total of 33 crimes, for humiliating and torturing immigrants in Odemira.

    In a November 10 indictment to which CNN Portugal and TVI had access, the Public Prosecutor’s Office states that the police officers committed the acts of torture “in a manifest excessive use of the power of authority” and that “all the defendants acted with satisfaction and contempt for individuals”.

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