Animation software gets closing credit

Animation software gets closing credit

Team uses technology to help bring 'The Fugitive' murder case to justice

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

Animation software helped to close the file on 'The Fugitive,' the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case that supplied the plot for a Hollywood feature film and a TV series.

Sheppard's wife Marilyn was murdered at their home in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village early on July 4, 1954.

A jury declared Sheppard guilty of his wife's death. He spent the next 10 years in jail and was released on bond in 1964. At a 1966 retrial, the jury found Sheppard not guilty. He died in 1970.


Prosecutors credit Maya software from Alias/Wavefront and SGI computers for reducing jury deliberation time in the case of Sheppard vs. Ohio, a follow-up to the 1954 murder case that inspired the TV series
and movie 'The Fugitive.'


When Sheppard's son recently appealed for a verdict of innocent for his father, Ohio state prosecutors worked with FBI officials to model the crime scene with animation software.

After both sides presented evidence, the eight-member jury deliberated for less than three hours to decide on a unanimous verdict of 'not innocent.'

Get with the program

FBI programmers used Maya Version 2.5 software from Alias/Wavefront Inc. of Toronto, a subsidiary of SGI, to create a 3-D model based on law enforcement diagrams and old photos of the Sheppard home. New owners bought the lot in 1990 and tore down the house, said Dean Borland, assistant prosecuting attorney for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office.

Maya combines object-oriented C++ codes set with an OpenGL graphics tool and Alias/Wavefront's proprietary scripting and command language called Maya Embedded Language (MEL). Maya is the same software Hollywood studios used to create the special effects in 'Jurassic Park' and 'The Matrix.'

In the courtroom, Borland projected the animation onto a 6-foot-tall screen from an SGI 540 PC with a 550-MHz Pentium III processor, 128M of RAM and Microsoft Windows NT.

The combination of Maya software images and crime scene photos so informed the jury that 'they knew the Sheppards' house as well as they knew their own houses,' Borland said.

Jurors could do a virtual walk-through of the house, said Dave Egts, a systems engineer with SGI.

The viewer could experience what it was like to climb up or down the stairs or walk around a bed.

From testimonies, FBI officials programmed key paths into the animation. Sheppard's son maintained that his mother's real killer was Richard Eberling, a Cleveland window washer. Borland showed the jury the path Eberling had to take to get into the house, revealing how Eberling would have had to walk past the couch where Sheppard slept. Borland also demonstrated Sheppard's path up the stairs where Sheppard claimed a 'bushy-haired intruder' in white knocked him out.

Triple threat

Were it not for the 3-D animation, the jury could have spent hours or days longer in the deliberation process, Borland said. The 1954 jury had taken five days to find Sheppard guilty. 'This technology will really shorten trial time,' Borland said. 'It also eliminates the slick-lawyer tactics you can use to argue your way around a case.'

The unusual verdict of 'not innocent' comes from a wrongful imprisonment statute Ohio passed in 1986, Borland said. If a person feels he was wrongfully imprisoned, he has to establish that he is innocent. This is different from criminal cases. This year's trial was a civil case.

'If anything, we undershot the capabilities of the software,' Egts said. 'We had photos and drawings, but we didn't have the blueprints of the house anymore.'

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