Discover more from Diane Francis
Law, Order, and Tech
February 27, 2023
Anyone who grew up reading Sherlock Holmes or watching Perry Mason, Miami Vice, True Detective, or CSI believes that justice is the result of dogged police work, interrogation aptitude, hunches, shoe-leather policing to knock on doors to find witnesses and uncover evidence, and crime scene clues. But two of America’s most sensational multiple murder cases currently in the courts – a prominent South Carolina lawyer accused of murdering his wife and son and a PhD student accused of murdering four undergraduates in Idaho -- provide an eye-popping glimpse into the technological transformation of policing and prosecutions. What’s changed is that every day all of us leave digital fingerprints everywhere. Our devices, from cellphones to Apple watches, vehicles, surveillance cameras, and doorbells stalk us wherever we go, as a victim or perpetrator. Today, more evidence in minute detail is available than ever before and is accessible to authorities because it is stored, for all eternity, in the “cloud”.
The “Internet of Things” [IoT] has arrived. This is SiliconValley “speak” to describe the electronic architecture that links physical objects with sensors, cameras, recorders, processing ability, software, and bio- and nano- technologies. This linkage allows data to be unearthed and exchanged from cell phones, electronic devices, or systems via the Internet or social media networks. The “IoT” harvests individual information and stores it in gigantic data bases. This Brave New World of connectivity enables thieves or terrorists to pry, spy, steal funds or identities, hack programs to cause chaos, or penetrate financial, infrastructure, defense, or corporate systems. But it also enables law enforcement to more easily find and bring culprits to justice.
Everything is “smart” these days — phones, houses, trucks, watches — except the criminals who get caught if they leave behind traces of their identity such as fingerprints or DNA or are unaware their actions are recorded all the time. Once identified as potential suspects by police, their entire life – from movements to opinions to associations and threats – can be dug up by investigators who access data socked away in some server farm in a remote location under lock and key. The result — as these two murder cases illustrate — is people are being incriminated by smart phones, computers, or “smart” cars which are increasingly computers on wheels.
A cell phone, today, is essentially a mobile “crime scene” because of the trove of information and leads that it provides investigators who are hunting for wrongdoing. Whether belonging to the victim or a perpetrator or a witness, the phone is now central to police work because virtually everyone has one. Every smart phone retains a record of its owner’s or user’s movements, locations based on cellphone towers, conversations (deleted or saved), texts, emails, images, videos, social media, Siri interactions, contacts, detailed records of contacts made, and incoming and outgoing calls, along with a statement of frequency. All this information can be “mined” from phones even if they have been smashed, shot, submerged, or microwaved.
Likewise, cars are a treasure trove of personal information. There is now a new policing specialty known as digital vehicle forensics because cars contain an astonishing amount of information in their onboard computers. A recent case involved a dead man who was found in his car and investigators uncovered a voice recording of the murder suspect telling the victim’s car to play a certain song after a pre-determined time of death. Vehicles are also “telltales” like phones, but are easier for police to access because there are fewer privacy protections for cars.
What follows are details from the two most sensational multiple murder cases in America where technology has been a major player. (Note: Charges have been laid but neither of the accused men have been convicted and I have excluded their names because it’s irrelevant. What’s important in the following narratives is the role played by digital and bio forensics.)
On November 13, 2022, four college students were stabbed to death in the early hours in their rental home in Moscow, Idaho. Police found a fingerprint on the sheath of the murder weapon left behind that allowed their forensic experts to work up a DNA “profile”. A neighbor’s doorbell camera also recorded a white car that was driving in the vicinity before and after the crime. Police decided this unusual activity was suspicious and issued a bulletin to the public asking for the whereabouts of the car. A security guard at a nearby college reported that it was parked at a student residence. The owner was identified but not notified — he was a criminology student — and police scoured video camera footage through the region to track where the car had travelled in the days before and after the crime.
Police surreptitiously, but legally, obtained a search warrant that required the suspect’s cell phone provider to give police access to all his phone data. The search showed he had left his house just before the murders, had turned off his phone for two hours (within which time the murders occurred), then returned home and came back to the site the next morning. In December, the suspect and his father drove the car to their home in Pennsylvania and, after they arrived, the FBI rifled through the family garbage to get DNA samples. They hit a match: DNA analytical results showed that a man living there was 99.9 percent certain to be the father of the person who left his fingerprint and DNA on the knife sheath at the murder scene. His son was arrested the next day.
The other case — the Murdaugh family murders in South Carolina – has also extensively used technology in evidence-gathering. In July 2022, the accused — husband and father of the victims and a prominent lawyer — was charged a year after the murders. Both victims were shot on the family hunting estate at night in front of dog kennels. There were no witnesses and the accused told police that he was not at the kennels in the hours leading up to their deaths. He told police he had napped in the family residence, a football field away, then visited his ailing parents miles away. Gone for a couple of hours, he said he returned home to find his wife and son lying in pools of blood and immediately called 9-11. He told police, after they arrived, that he had just returned home to find them 20 minutes before.
But cellphone data debunked his alibi and placed him at the crime scene minutes before their deaths. The evidence was contained in his son’s cell phone because he had sent a video of his father at the site, time-stamped, on Snapchat to his friends. Once disclosed, the accused abruptly changed his alibi, admitted he had lied, but continued to claim he did not kill them. While damning, this won’t convict him alone because the evidence is circumstantial and the two murder weapons have not been found. But prosecutors have been building a base to the jury that his denial of the murders is unreliable. On the stand, he admitted to stealing millions of dollars from clients and law partners, massive opioid addiction, lying to authorities over the years, and lying that he was napping and not at the kennels the night they died.
In both cases, the importance of technology sleuthing is front and center. Of course, these new tech tools also raise questions about privacy and unreasonable search that will be adjudicated by the courts or by edict. But facial recognition, police body cams, mining data bases, tens of millions of surveillance cameras, and smart devices containing clues are a reality. They have revolutionized the world of law and order profoundly and permanently. And they may even make society slightly safer.