How are pictures used in court when it is getting increasingly getting easier to alter them
If you want to use any evidence in court you need to be able to provide proof making it unlikely that it have been manipulated. Usually evidence comes with a full record of the chain of custody and witness statements from the people who collected the evidence in the first place. Most of this is not presented in the trial though. But it is part of the pre-trial discovery process that only involves the lawyers and occasionally the judge. If one of the lawyers wants to dispute any evidence they have to do it in the discovery process. Disputing evidence for the first time in the trial may be a mistrial and possibly contempt of court.
But because any evidence might be disputed in this way you rarely see people go to criminal trial with only one piece of evidence against them. And when this happens they usually gets acquitted. But if you have a picture with a full record of the chain of custody making it unlikely to have been altered and you have other pieces of evidence showing the same as the picture then you may use the picture as part of a trial.
The general rule is that no piece of “real evidence” gets admitted unless a person takes the stand and testifies under oath what it is and where it came from. Sometimes it requires more than one witness to do that. For example one witness finds the gun. Another witness tests the gun and matches it to the bullet. A third witness says “yeah I’m the guy who sold that gun to the accused.”
Photographs are no different from any other piece of evidence. Somebody has to show when it was taken. That might just be a person testifying “yes I took that photo of the accused pointing the gun at the deceased moments before I heard the gunshot.” For things like security footage from a bank, it’s a bit more complicated.
A photo can be tampered with, just as the gun, or the examination can be tampered with, or the bullet, or anything else. But when a person takes the stand to say “I took that photo and it accurately shows what I saw”, then it is going into evidence. If the other party wants to argue that it has been tampered with, then they can go ahead and do so. But whatever they do, that only goes to the evidence’s value, not its admissibility.
All evidence is subject to “weight”, as in how reliable is this piece of evidence. That is for the judge or jury to decide. But it’s worth knowing that there are few pieces of real evidence that are less reliable than most humans who take the stand and testify as to what they saw. We still allow people to take the stand and give their evidence, despite knowing that you can’t really completely rely on it.
I’ve been a lawyer for 27 years. I have seen things that would make you shake your head, and I’ve been the witness (not literally, I never had to testify) whose memory was just plain wrong. It’s just shocking how the mind can screw up in an emotionally charged situation.
We all do the best we can despite all the frailties, and most of us look forward to the things that will help us do it better. But boy oh boy, we all have some pretty good stories about evidence that let us down.
What should get your goat, is how human testimony is seen as reliable and irrefutable evidence when people have literally the worst memories
While most of this is true with respect to evidence in general, photos and videos are slightly different. You can sponsor such evidence through a witness who will testify that the video or picture accurately depicts how that place appeared at the time. They do not have to have taken the picture, nor does the picture have to be from the exact time of the events in question.
A couple examples: a witness to a murder is shown a picture of the victim lying on the ground covered in blood. The picture was taken by police or medical examiner or something. You don’t have to have the photographer testify in court that they took the picture, you can just have the eyewitness testify that they saw the victim lying on the ground and that the picture accurately depicts how the victim appeared at the time.
Second example: the witness is involved in a car accident. An insurance investigator goes to the scene of the accident a month later and takes a picture of the intersection. You don’t need to call the investigator as a witness, you just ask the person who was in the accident whether the picture accurately depicts how the intersection appeared on the day of the accident. Assuming nothing major happened to the intersection in the month between the accident and when the picture was taken, the witness’ testimony is sufficient to authenticate and admit the picture.
The crazy thing is, you could actually admit an altered picture if the witness can testify that the picture accurately depicts the scene and the proponent of the evidence identifies how the picture was altered. Take our second example, with the car accident. Say you digitally altered the photo to add in a car to the intersection where there was a car on the day of the accident. The witness could testify that the digitally added car appears how it did at the time of the accident and the altered photo could then be admitted.
All evidence has to go through the hearsay exception. Meaning it has to be proven that it is what it looks like. And so pictures have to undergo forensic examination to look for signs of tampering.
This is part of why it can take months or years before the case goes to court.