I had spent the majority of my time in late 2011 working on various documentary television shows as a director of photography with the intent to save up as much money as possible so that I could take some time off and continue my work on my nature documentary about the Hudson River. I had booked the entire month of February 2012 as time off so that I could get some winter scenes in the can. If you’re a filmmaker, you know that unless you carve out specific time for your own film, you’ll end up helping someone else finish theirs.
Heading into the final week of January, I was prepping my camera gear and shot lists for a series of snowy scenes around Cold Spring, NY. On my way out to run a few errands in my neighborhood, I saw a letter had arrived in my mailbox. It was a jury summons from the Eastern District of New York. Having lived overseas for most of my twenties, this would be my first opportunity to serve on a jury, and I had no idea what to expect. My initial reaction of dread quickly gave way to curiosity. I still had a few days before my month off began, so what could a couple of days hurt? At least I could do my civil duty and be good for another few years. I had no clue that this was to become one of the most important and fascinating months of my life.
Jury duty for a large case in Brooklyn starts off in a room the size of a high-school gymnasium filled with hundreds of people from all walks of life, none of whom know one another. There are these shitty little LCD televisions suspended from the ceiling that have been playing the same introduction to American civics video since the early 2000s over and over again until their color has jaundiced. The Eastern District of New York actually hired a professional film crew and cast of semi-talented actors to play out the history of the justice system in America with angry mobs in period costume chasing down fellow citizens and administering barbaric justice. The court officers call individuals in by groups and the jury selection process begins. Starting with nearly a thousand individuals, they initially split the group into two halves. Five hundred of us prospective jurors were led into the main courtroom, standing room only, and the judge proceeded to tell us that were being considered as the jury for an important homicide case and that the trial could last for several weeks. There was a collective gasp in the room as everyone realized the prospect of taking off work and family obligations for such a long period of time.
The judge went from person to person and asked us if there were any reasons why we believed that we should be exempt from the trial. There were single mothers who said they couldn’t take the hardship of time off. There were CEOs and business owners who said their businesses and employees wouldn’t survive without them. There were people who, once the judge indicated the ethnicity of the defendants, said that their own racism did not allow for objectivity. (AWKWARD…) Just about everyone in the room had a pretty solid reason why taking weeks off from their busy lives would not be justified. Once they got to me, I simply shrugged and said I had no excuse. Listening to so many hard working people fight back tears to plead for their dismissal, I had no right to complain. I had taken a month off from work to make a wildlife documentary so I was already primed for sitting still for long periods of time to observe novel behavior under extraordinary circumstances. Inside of every documentary filmmaker, there is a scrappy little anthropologist peering back out into the world with delightful curiosity.
The attorneys and the judge eventually whittled a group of over a thousand people down to twenty through a process called “voir dire” (speak the truth) and I had somehow made the cut. How they ended up selecting me, I will never know. I suspect it might have been my calm resignation. What I do know, is that sitting in a large court room and seeing the families of the victim as well as the accused walk through the large wooden doors in solemn quiet, I suddenly felt the awesome weight of civic responsibility. Whatever happened over the next few weeks, there was a chance that I would be making the decision along with my peers to revoke the liberty of another human being.
At some point in our first week of the trial, the state’s attorney was presenting a series of evidence taken from the crime scene to support the state’s argument that an upcoming witness had been able to see the face of the defendant under his hoodie from a third floor window. Included in her presentation was a series of photos taken by a forensic photographer at the crime scene. One set of images in particular caught my attention immediately not because of their gruesome nature, but because of the attorney’s description. “These images represent the approximate visibility at the scene on the night of the murder.” The attorney said with confidence, speaking directly to us in the jury box. They were a set of four or five photographs taken only a couple of hours after the murder in the middle of the night. I became immediately suspicious. I have very good vision and I thought the images looked a bit brighter than what I’m used to seeing on a dark street covered with trees in the middle of the night. The images were also not white balanced. They were plainly set to the wrong white balance under the sodium vapor street lamps (which were severely shifted toward a deep orange). This also has a huge effect on apparent brightness as well as color perception. How was I to know that these images “approximately” represented what another human would see in the dark? One would assume that a forensic photographer had used some method for image calibration, however, the image did not look calibrated to me at all! Without some form of control, the entire process of taking a photographic image is subjective. Without using a standardized form of calibration, there will always be doubt that the exposure and color of an image is correct. Photographers and cinematographers alike go to great lengths to ensure that the reproduction of an image is as close a match as possible to reality.
While these images were not accompanied with an expert witness or proof of reasonable scientific accuracy, we the jury were left to assume that the relative viewing condition at the time of the murder was such that a woman peering through a window from the third floor could see an African American man under a hoodie. Baloney! That’s not all. The witness was also inside her kitchen with the lights on. Another red flag. The viewing conditions would be extremely challenging even if color temperature wasn’t an issue. Seeing as how most apartments do not use sodium vapor as a light source, I’m going to make the educated guess that her lighting was either an energy saving CFL or a standard tungsten light bulb. They do not sell sodium vapor bulbs for household use in standard consumer stores. They are extremely expensive and under high pressure with toxic sodium. I’ve spent a bit of time filming in some of these NYC housing projects and they often use CFL bulbs for energy saving purposes. More discerning people don’t like the clinical green light from the 4800K CFL fluorescent bulbs so they will swap them out with standard 3200K household bulbs which are warmer and more pleasing to the eye.
The human neuro-optical organs that create our sense of vision have the amazing ability to adapt to whatever color temperature we are in at the time. Scientists call this remarkable ability color constancy. For example, the witness who was in her kitchen at the moment of the murder likely bathed in light with a white balance of approximately 3200K, 4800K, or a mix of the two. There is a small chance that she had a lamp on a hand-dimmer which can bring the color temperature of a 3200K tungsten lamp down a bit, however, we don’t often find dimmers in a NYC housing project kitchen nor does the average consumer utilize such a setup. CFL bulbs don’t really dim that well at all and will not lose their color temp when the voltage drops through a dimming mechanism. When we are surrounded by a consistent light of a particular white balance, a white piece of paper will appear white. The human eye and brain will adjust to the lighting conditions in the environment. Millions of years of evolution have given our species a sophisticated auto white balance tool. However, where this adaptation breaks down is when the color balance and brightness of a scene changes dramatically in a short period of time. Our eyes and brain need a few moments to adjust to this change in luminosity and color. The state’s witness said that she heard a gunshot and immediately went to the window to see what was happening and that’s when she allegedly recognized the shooter’s face under a hoodie. Given the contrast in the apparent brightness between the witness’ bright kitchen and the dim orange porch three stories below, I still have a very reasonable doubt that facial recognition was possible.
Provided the lighting conditions are still the same, it would be possible to go to the scene of the murder with a couple of measuring tools like a color meter, exposure meter, and a measuring tape in order to calculate the apparent brightness and color temperature of an individual standing in any location. Using a simple formula called the inverse-square law, we could easily quantify the amount of light falling on the murderer’s face at the time of the crime. Utilizing the standard observer model, we can make a reasonably accurate assessment of the limits of visual perception at the scene of the crime. Of all the expert witnesses that the defense called to testify, a digital imaging expert could have made a compelling defense.
The murderer was also witnessed to have been wearing a black hoodie at the time of the crime. As if the apparent brightness of the scene wasn’t enough to sew the seeds of doubt, the white balance of a camera can have a huge affect on the correct perception of skin color. The apparent color of an object is dependent upon the color of light that illuminates the object. For example: I had a blue night light in my bathroom for many years. It was a cool glow that was easy on the eyes in the wee hours of the morning. At some point I decided to wear an old gray t-shirt with yellow lettering on the front. When I stepped into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, the lettering had disappeared! I reached down to feel if the embroidered letters had fallen off, but I could feel they were still there. Upon further inspection, I could still see the faint outline of the lettering. I realized that the blue light coming from the night light was cancelling out the color of the yellow fabric thus making it blend in with the gray of the t-shirt. Being the color nerd that I am, I couldn’t stop asking the same question every day during my jury duty: How did the witness know the hoodie was actually black? Considering that the scene of the crime was illuminated by the deep orange glow of a sodium vapor light, I could make an easy argument that the hoodie could have been dark blue. If the murderer had run from the scene of the crime and later caught on camera running through an area illuminated by a more green halogen lamp, witnesses would have seen a slightly lighter shade of blue! How would a witness have even known the ethnicity of the individual with certainty? Color temperature affects our perception of skin color as well. There are too many unanswered questions.
I’m not making the argument that, by using an 18% reflectance card, the photographic methodology would have changed the outcome of the jury’s decision. However, there will always be room for improvement in our justice system. When citizens are put in the powerful position to revoke the liberty of another citizen, the subjectivity of a non-calibrated image can be powerful. Perhaps someday, I’ll write another article which details the month-long case and how it escalated into a 12 Angry Men-esque crescendo of a hung-jury for nearly four days with some of my fellow jurors wanting to put the defendant away for life on first-degree murder and one grandmother who held strong in defense of reason. We argued, we laughed, we cried, and I eventually walked away having had the humbling experience of civic duty and knowing the ultimate value of reasonable doubt.
Cover photo courtesy of: Elti Meshau — Unsplash