Supplement to Chapter 4
(Bringing the Autopsy into the Courtroom)
Copyright © 2006 DH Kaye
In Kevin S. Douglas, David R. Lyon, & James R.P. Ogloff, The Impact of Graphic Photographic Evidence on Mock Jurors' Decisions in a Murder Trial: Probative or Prejudicial?, 21 Law & Hum. Behav. 485 (1997), psychologists at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia reported on an experiment to ascertain whether autopsy photographs were prejudicial. They had 120 pyschology students read a 30-page single-spaced, fictional trial transcript in a first degree-murder stabbing case. The control group saw no photographs of the victim, only the "graphic description of the victim's body which was detailed in the testimony of the medical examiner." An experimental group read the same testimony and saw two black-and-white 8 x 10" photographs of the victim; another experimental group read the same testimony and saw two 8 x 10" color photographs. The subjects then completed a questionnaire in which, among other things, they stated their verdict (not guilty, guilty of first-degree murder, guilty of second-degree murder, or guilty of manslaughter) and expressed their belief in guilt on a ten-point scale. Part of the results are shown below:
|control (40)||11 (27.5%)|
|B & W (40)||20 (50%)|
|color (40)||23 (57.5%)|
How helpful would this study be in arguing that autopsy photographs or videotapes should be excluded in a particular case?
[T]he broad discretion which the trial court has in admitting shocking and inflammatory photographs is not unlimited, and that discretion was abused here when the court permitted the jury to view photographs A-6 through A-9. Each of these four photographs was taken during the course of the autopsy performed on Thad. Photographs A-6 and A-7 are views of the child's brain still attached to the body, with the top of the head removed and the face obscured by blood and tissue. A-8 shows the interior of the skull with the brain absent, and A-9 is a full length view of Thad's body split open from the neck to the crotch, exposing various internal organs.
These photographs were ostensibly introduced to show that the cause of death was the presence of subdural hematomas. However, defendant's own expert agreed that the cause of death was bleeding from these hematomas, and the only real question was whether such bleeding could have been induced by an accidental fall, a question over which the experts were divided.
We fail to see how these photographs shed enough light on the question of accident to counteract the passion and prejudice which they must have generated. As the Supreme Court said in Archina v. People, 135 Colo. 8, 307 P.2d 1083 (1957): "(I)t is the duty of the District Attorney to present all available facts so that the jurors may, through their mental processes, arrive at the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It is not his duty or right to produce or present evidence that has no probative value and that serves only to arouse the passions and prejudices of the jurors. These pictures do not serve to stimulate the mental processes of the jurors, but only to arouse their passions and prejudices and to cause them to abandon their mental processes and give expression to their emotions."
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updated 13 November 2001