3D Printed Skulls Presented as Evidence in Murder Trial, in a First for the British Legal System

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Ben-ButlerThere are few things that are harder to hear about, or think about, than the murder of a child. Even more incomprehensible is when the death of a child comes at the hands of his or her parents, but, tragically, it happens, and when it does it tends to makes international news. It’s a tiny bit comforting to think that these cases become so high-profile because of their relative rarity, but it doesn’t make them any easier to handle.

In 2013, six-year-old Ellie Butler of Sutton, England died from severe head injuries after allegedly being beaten by her father, Ben Butler, who is currently on trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. Butler has denied the charges that he beat his daughter in a fit of rage, though based on his previous history of violence, it doesn’t look good for the 36-year-old man. He and his partner, Ellie’s mother Jennie Gray, had previously been charged before with child cruelty for not seeking treatment for an earlier injury to Ellie, and the girl’s school and doctors have reported suspicions of repeated child abuse over the course of Ellie’s short life.

While forensic pathologists have described Ellie’s injuries as being “catastrophic” and similar to those that would have been sustained in a car crash, Ben Butler’s lawyers continue to insist that she died after jumping on her bed and accidentally falling off. To better illustrate to jurors the extent of Ellie’s injuries, the court has turned to 3D printing. According to consultant forensic pathologist Nat Cary, digital CT scan and x-ray data was used to create two 3D printed replicas of Ellie’s skull, which were then presented to the court.

[Image: Times Newspapers Ltd.]

[Image: Times Newspapers Ltd.]

While it’s believed to be the first case in which 3D printed skulls have been used as evidence in a British court, it’s not the first time that 3D printing and scanning has helped to prosecute or exonerate criminals. The British court system is, in fact, no stranger to the effectiveness of the technology. 3D printed bones helped put another English murderer behind bars last year, and a 3D printed replica of a murder weapon led to the conviction of yet another. 3D modeling was even used recently to confirm the occurrence of a homicide from over 400,000 years ago. 

butlerDespite the fact that 3D printing has shown itself to be a highly effective way to create accurate reproductions of evidence, Butler’s lawyer remains skeptical (or at least wants to convince the jury to remain so). The skulls were 3D printed so that the damage could be more clearly seen than on a flat image of a scan – the same reason doctors and surgeons create 3D printed replicas of their patients’ bones and organs. Creating 3D models from CT scans and x-rays has proven again and again to be able to produce detailed and exact reproductions of parts of the body – not to mention tumors, fractures and other damage – but Butler’s lawyer doubts the accuracy of the printed models presented to the court.

“It appears to us they are not identical… and I think some care should be taken,” he said. “They are simply somebody’s best efforts at recreating what has been seen on the scans and not entirely representative of what has been seen on the scans. Too much reliance should not be placed on their absolute accuracy.”

If the scanning and printing were done correctly, the accuracy should be absolute, or very close to it – Butler’s lawyer makes it sound as if an artist looked at the scans and built the 3D models by hand. It’s what the jury thinks that matters, though, and just looking at a picture of the 3D printed skulls makes it difficult to believe that Ellie Butler could have sustained such severe injuries by falling off a bed. I’ll certainly be following this case to see where it leads, and whether 3D printing helps bring about another conviction. Do you think this technology will be used more and more in the legal system? Discuss in the 3D Printed Skulls forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: The Mirror ; The Sun]
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