Episode 76 – Virtual Legal Reality with Sarah Zarmsky, Brittan Heller and Shirin Anlen

Last year, virtual reality entered the Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court with an official side event hosted by the Office of the Prosecutor. So we decided to look into how this new technology is entering international courtrooms and which opportunities and challenges it brings. And it turns out this conversation was well timed as in February a Colombian court was the first to hold a hearing in the metaverse.   

To help us untangle what virtual reality actually entails we are joined by Sarah Zarmsky, visiting scholar at the Human Rights Center at the University of Berkeley, and Brittan Heller, lecturer in International Law at Standford University and previously at the ICC. For a hands-on perspective, we invited Shirin Anlen, media technologist at the human rights organisation WITNESS

We start off by mapping the field – What is virtual reality? How does it sit with digital reconstruction and extended reality , also called XR. With Brittan and Sarah, we explore the opportunities this technology creates for trials, as it allows judges to experience crime scenes that might no longer exist or be too dangerous to travel to. And we ask them which challenges there might be, as this immersive experience could lead to the “seeing is believing” bias and affect the fairness of trials, as Sarah wrote in her article

Shirin filled us in on the technicalities of creating a digital reconstruction model and how the human biases and the freedom of this medium balance out. And we ask all three experts where digital reconstruction is going in and outside international courtrooms. 

Two examples of VR model we mentioned – Saydnaya torture prison in Syria by Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture and Nobody’s Listening, on the crimes against Yazidi women. 

Related to the field, Sarah suggests Digital Witness, while to unwind she opts for cycling classes and the series The Last of Us on HBO. Shirin is also a big fan of the Last of Us and has recently gotten into dog training. Brittan manages to balance work and family as her 6-month-old daughter seems to particularly like hearing her talk about technology and law.


This podcast has been produced as part of a partnership with JusticeInfo.net, an independent website in French and English covering justice initiatives in countries dealing with serious violence. It is a media outlet of Fondation Hirondelle, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.