Semi-Legibility and Visual Evidence: An Initial Exploration

Law, Culture and the Humanities (May, 2012)

UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 13-16

23 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2013 Last revised: 13 Jun 2013

See all articles by Jennifer Mnookin

Jennifer Mnookin

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: June 10, 2013


This essay names and examines an often-used but little discussed category of legal evidence: semi-legible visual evidence. Semi-legible visual evidence can take many forms, including blurry photographs; low-quality films shot by police dashboard cameras, surveillance cameras, or iphones; fingerprints; x-rays; MRIs and PET scans, to name just a few of the many types of visual display introduced in court that are only partly decipherable to a (lay) viewer. Semi-legible images cannot be said simply to speak for themselves; they must be made to speak, through the exertion of effort, expertise, or both. I argue that thinking about these different kinds of visual evidence together has the effect, not only of highlighting semi-legibility as a meaningful evidentiary category, but also of suggesting important but often-unnoticed connections between expertise and visual legibility. In addition, this essay offers a basic taxonomy of semi-legible visual evidence, examining, in turn, blurry images; interpretively ambiguous images; "‘jigsaw’" images, in which an important piece is missing; images semi-legible to laypeople but readily decipherable by those with relevant expertise; and images semi-legible even to experts. For each category, I describe its parameters, focus on strategies by which it may be made more (or less) legible, and discuss particular challenges it offers as evidence. This essay thus aims to contribute to our understanding of the complex methods by which we produce, wield, enhance, read and interpret visual evidence in court.

Keywords: Visual evidence, evidence, expertise, expert evidence, interpretation, film, photography, technology, legal proof, legibility

Suggested Citation

Mnookin, Jennifer L., Semi-Legibility and Visual Evidence: An Initial Exploration (June 10, 2013). Law, Culture and the Humanities (May, 2012); UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 13-16. Available at SSRN: or

Jennifer L. Mnookin (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

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