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Forensic Examinations: How Data Visualization Can Help Lawyers and Investigators Tell a Compelling Story

by | Jun 11, 2021

Data Visualization

A forensic examination can yield a mountain of data from a variety of disparate sources that can help expose wrongdoing and provide hard evidence critical to proving (or disproving) a case. 

But gathering and analyzing the data is just one part of the task. What happens when it comes time to tell the story to judges, jurors and other finders of fact? While the forensic examination is essential, the volume of material gathered and the complex nature of the data—routinely involving a maze of financial transactions—may be difficult for even sophisticated audiences to easily  grasp.

Two maxims spring to mind: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and when you’re telling a story, “Show, don’t tell.” By presenting data through compelling visuals, lawyers and investigators can advance their narratives and give finders of fact a way to quickly understand crucial data. Fortunately, electronic information collected during a forensic examination is tailor-made for data visualizations that can help bring stories to life.

And data visualization can assist in the forensic examination process as well, making it easier to:

• identify and link key people and events.

• show how activities in an organization have evolved over time.

• demonstrate how funds have flowed in and out of an organization.

• identify patterns in the data.

• help members of an organization understand the data and assist investigators in communicating findings.

A SIMPLE LINE CHART

A visualization need not be overly complicated. In fact, even a simple line chart depicting a trend over time can make a strong statement that sticks in the minds of fact finders. Investigators can also use such infographics during the course of an investigation to make sense of data and pinpoint anomalies. 

Consider a forensic examination we conducted on behalf of a national advertising agency. Troubling questions arose over the unexplained growth of the agency’s line of credit. The credit line was expected to ebb and flow to meet the cash needs of the business. This included capital expenditures, repayment of term debt, client advances, and bonuses to key employees.

But the numbers showed that the line of credit was fluctuating oddly in comparison to an increasing intra-agency receivable. The receivable represented an anomaly that should have been explained by cash requirements for client advances. Yet, our analysis of those advanced did not support such a theory.

A data visualization helped depict the line of credit undulating along with the growth of the receivable. [See below.]

Advertising Agency Data Visualization

Armed with the data visualized in the chart, we dug deeper into the receivable issue and discovered a series of suspicious transactions involving a single vendor. Further forensic examination of structured data (such as information in the agency’s accounting system) and unstructured data (such as employee emails) helped us uncover a complex financial fraud scheme involving overstated revenue, bonus payments, and a fictitious vendor. The scheme had been engineered by the agency’s controller. Armed with the evidence we collected, we interviewed the controller, who confessed.

When the investigation began, we had very little information to go on. We started with the knowledge that accounts that have been manipulated usually show unusual relationships with accounts that have not been manipulated. Data visualization gave us a clear picture of this anomaly at the agency, and eventually helped us ferret out the truth. And along the way, it also helped us clearly communicate the direction of the investigation to the agency and giving the organization’s leaders the evidence they needed to continue the search.

COMMUNICATING IN COURT

As the advertising agency case demonstrates, data visualization can be an important part of the investigative process. In a courtroom, the ability to present evidence in a way that is accessible for a jury or judge is even more critical. A jury bombarded with overly technical information is likely to tune out—or worse, become angry over the lack of effort in helping them understand the details presented.  Visualization can help prevent this from happening.

A recent article in the International Journal of Legal Medicine highlighted the impact of visualization on jurors’ understanding of complex evidence in a courtroom. While the article was concerned with medical imaging, the lessons are applicable for attorneys and experts attempting to present complex financial data. 

The authors noted that jurors’ understanding of technical information rose with the use of visualization (in this case 3D imaging of medical evidence). And citing previous academic studies on juror behavior, they said “the comprehension of verbal presentations improved with the use of visual aids.”

As in a medical case, most jurors are unlikely to have the background to easily understand the highly technical data involved. Many jurors (and some judges for that matter) will not have read a balance sheet—let alone arcane accounting and corporate governance rules. For attorneys and their experts, a courtroom narrative will be far more compelling and readily understood if they can use a compelling visual to show the way.

To learn more about how FSS’s forensic examination and data visualization capabilities, contact us for a consultation.