Admissibility of Zhora’s Photo in Blade Runner

How Could Deckard authenticate the photo with the ESPER machine?

The 1982 classic Blade Runner posed a complex evidentiary issue: How could Leon’s photo of Zhora be admissible in court? Would the zoomed in image of Zhora be merely a duplicate from the original image? Or would expert testimony be needed to authenticate the image?

Blade Runner Rick Deckard used the ESPER machine in his apartment to pull an image from a reflection in a photo found in the hotel room of the Replicant Leon. The verbal commands to navigate the image were:

Enhance 224 to 176. Enhance, stop. Move in, stop. Pull out, track right, stop. Center in, pull back. Stop. Track 45 right. Stop. Center and stop. Enhance 34 to 36. Pan right and pull back. Stop. Enhance 34 to 46. Pull back. Wait a minute, go right, stop. Enhance 57 to 19. Track 45 left. Stop. Enhance 15 to 23. Give me a hard copy right there.

Blade Runner script

Deckard scanned in the original photo for analysis in the ESPER machine. As such, there is no metadata from the original photo, because it was a printed image, not an electronic one. However, there should be an audit log within the ESPER machine that documented the analysis of the photo.

Photographic evidence can be admissible in California if the photos properly authenticated. Evid. Code, §§ 250, 1401, subd. (a). Photos can be authenticated by the testimony of someone with personal knowledge of the photo when it was taken (they were in the photo or took the photo) or expert testimony if no one has personal knowledge of the photo. People v. Bowley (1963) 59 Cal.2d 855. More recent cases have explained that authentication for photos “may be supplied by other witness testimony, circumstantial evidence, content and location” and “also may be established ‘by any other means provided by law’ including a statutory presumption.“ People v. Goldsmith, 59 Cal.4th 258, p. 268 (Cal., 2014), citing CA Evid. Code § 1400.

Cases involving photos on social media and cell phones are helpful to authenticate the photo of Zhora recovered from the ESPER machine.

In a case from San Francisco, a police officer searched Instagram to monitor a person on probation. The officer saw photos of the person on probation, plus another who was a wanted felon, posing with guns on Instagram photos. The officers went to the known address of the individual on probation and made arrests of the two individuals. Both individuals were wearing the same clothes as in the photos. People v. K.B. (In re K.B.), 238 Cal.App.4th 989 (Cal. App., 2015).

While not stated if it was a search incident to arrest, the cell phone of one of the Defendants was forensically collected was a tool named Cellebrite. A report was offered to the Court stating images the exact time and date the photons that appeared on Instagram were taken. In re K.B, at *994-995.

The Court held that the investigating officers properly authenticated the photos, despite neither Defendant testifying to the authenticity of the photos. In re K.B, at *997-998. The officers had seen photos of the suspects on Instagram; the officers were familiar with the suspects; the suspects were wearing the same clothes in the photos when arrested; and the officers found the original photos on one of the suspect’s phones with forensic software that appeared on Instagram. All of these factors weighed in favor of properly authenticating the photos for admissibility.

Applying California Evidence Code Evid. Code § 1400 and recent case law, a Court could find the photo of Zhora with the ESPER machine to be admissible. The device scanned in the photo found in Leon’s hotel room and visually navigated the photo to find the image of Zhora. While some expert testimony would be necessary to explain how the ESPER machine operated, this is no different from explaining how forensic software such as Cellebrite operates. Moreover, as Deckard had the ESPER machine in his apartment, such technology might have been as commonplace as a Blu Ray player, which arguably would lower how much detail would need to be offered to explain how “common” technology operates. Furthermore, the audit log of the verbal commands should be offered to the Court, just as the report from Cellebrite, for the Court to understand how the image of Zhora was discovered in the original photo.

A Court would likely find the photos admissible…if Replicants had a right to a trial before being “retired.”