Annapolis firm helps to animate court trials Forensic assists companies with evidence, juries

October 19, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Just two years ago, Patrick A. Brady thought nothing of hauling a couple hundred poster-sized boards with charts and time lines and photos into court. His purpose: to simplify a tangle of complicated ideas thrown at laymen jurors.

"How do you explain quantum physics to them? Or, if it's asbestos fibers in the lungs, how do you show that?" said Brady, chief operating officer of Forensic Technologies International Corp., which helps law firms and corporations present trial evidence and analyze juries.

The boards helped, but too many could overwhelm.

"If we confuse the jury, they'll get angry with us. We needed to get good at telling stories," he said.

Enter the art of computer animation, which Forensic helped pioneer in the courtroom. Now it's propelling the growth of the Annapolis firm, which had sales of $30.6 million last year when it went public.

The technology, similar to that used in the computer animated film "Toy Story," can transport a jury into the cockpit of a plane or peel away walls of a power plant. Hundreds or thousands of bits of information explaining a product's function or a system failure are fed into a computer, morphed into photo-realistic, three-dimensional images and brought to life on large-screen monitors.

Hold their interest

That's what it takes to hold the interest of today's juries, said Richard K. Herrmann, a Wilmington, Del., attorney and computer-animation expert.

"We are now a [graphics-oriented] society," Herrmann said. "Everyone watches TV, takes videotapes home and is used to CNN news. People go on the Web. People are not used to being told stories anymore. They're used to seeing stories."

Forensic learned that about a decade ago, when the then five-year-old company began producing cutting-edge computer animations for high-profile cases.

In one case stemming from a 1986 New Year's Eve fire at the DuPont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which killed 97 people, Forensic represented the manufacturer of staging equipment stored in the hotel. Forensic engineers collected physical evidence and photographs to piece together a computer-animated depiction of the fire, based on more than 27,000 "data points," or pieces of data.

It helped prove that the equipment did not contribute to the death toll.

Plane crash re-created

After a Northwest Airlines DC-9 crash at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in August 1987, Forensic was hired by the jet's maker, McDonnell-Douglas Corp. Jurors got a chilling look at a 25-minute animation re-enacting the final moments before the crash. The simulation, culled from 78,000 data points, including the plane's blueprint and the audio from the black box data recorder, exonerated the manufacturer.

The visualization specialty grew out of Forensic's original business -- engineering and scientific investigations analyzing accidents for law firms, corporations and insurers, mostly in connection with litigation. From communications, the firm moved into trial consulting. (It worked for the defense in the O. J. Simpson criminal trial.)

Acquisitions

Earlier this month, the 240-employee Forensic acquired two related smaller firms, LWG Inc. of Northbrook, Ill., and Nevada-based Bodaken Associates. The move should place Forensic in the lead in litigation consulting -- a $1 billion-a-year market expected to grow as much as 10 percent annually as corporations consolidate more legal services, said analyst Philip J. Anderson of Unterberg Harris in New York.

Now, Forensic competes mainly with several dozen local or regional companies, he said.

"Corporations are seeking to stack the deck in their favor prior to entering the courtroom," by going to an outside firm that can run mock trials, provide expert witnesses and design powerful visual evidence, Anderson said. "I don't know of any other company that approaches the market with this basket of services."

With the latest acquisitions, Anderson projects Forensic's sales, million last year, will hit $58 million by 1998 with earnings roughly doubling during the same period to 83 cents a share -- or $3.9 million.

Stock a strong buy

He has rated the stock, which he terms "substantially undervalued," a strong buy. Forensic shares, which went public in May 1996 at $8.50, closed Friday at $9.875.

As Forensic focuses on future growth, "Communication will be the primary focus," said Jack B. Dunn IV, chief executive officer. "Our goal over the years has been to take very complex things and communicate them to people. The tools have gotten much better."

Technological advances explain why a drafting board sits against the wall, unused, in the visual communications division in the company's headquarters off Bestgate Road.

"We don't draw anything by hand anymore," said Brady, leading the way through a suite of warehouse offices where casually dressed, mostly young graphic artists, editors and producers worked at computers.

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