Is Seeing Believing? A Story of Visual Evidence

Jori Reiken
9 min readJan 8, 2022

The Rodney King Case was a case of police brutality where fifteen Los Angeles police officers committed police brutality on one African American male citizen, in March 1991. The incident was recorded by a photographer across the street and still, the officers were charged with the use of force but were acquitted of these charges (Stuart, 2011). Even though visual evidence can seem to be clear, there is no way of knowing how that evidence will be interpreted by either side of a trial. That was highlighted in the Rodney King trial as the evidence was manipulated to fit the police officers narrative. This paper will focus on the debate of visual evidence, as a tool in trials, and examples that highlight both sides of the discussion. A prime example is the Rodney King case, and another example is a study by Cooper et. al in 1996 that discussed how evidence being portrayed affects jury decisions.

Since the improvement of technology, everyone is carrying a video recording device in their pockets. It is more common now more than ever that the possibility that an action can be videotaped or recorded without one knowing. Visual evidence can be collected from everywhere, anywhere and from anybody. This creates an opportunity for evidence to be collected even by people who aren’t specialized, police officers, and create evidence for a different storyline then the official narrative. Police officers are trained to collect evidence in a certain way, but sometimes are blinded by the aspects of their job that they see every single day. Having the outsider perspective, a citizen or somebody passing by, allows evidence to be collected as the event happens rather than after the fact. Since becoming a standard process within the legal system, “visual evidence constitutes an important demonstrative technique used within the legal doctrine of evidence to prove an element of testimony requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt” (Vernich, 2017). Legal actors have adopted the techniques of using visual evidence to make their case, while jurors in criminal cases expect the use of visual evidence since the increase of TV shows demonstrating the legal processes. In the Rodney King case especially, the use of visual evidence was evidence that was not collected by footage accessible to the LAPD, but was made accessible by a citizen who took a video of the event taking place. This evidence was later a key part in both the original trial where the officers were acquitted and the appeal where the officers were charged.