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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Cell Phone Forensics – Evidence gleaned from Cell Phone used in High-Profile Cases

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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We had a fact pattern in mock trial last year that used cell phone evidence to place the defendant in a murder case. On one hand it was hard to know what to do with it or how to present it to a jury. On the other, its appeal to cold, hard facts gave it an air of being incontrovertible.

A recent article in Wired Magazine, Courts Cast Wary Eye on Evidence Gleaned From Cell Phones highlights some problems on a trend that’s on the rise.

The afternoon of Sept. 18, 1993, someone set fire to a notorious Los Angeles drug house near the University of Southern California, killing an addict. Four years later, R&B singer Waymond Anderson was convicted of the murder, based on the shaky testimony of two eyewitnesses, and on a third, silent witness whose implacable digital testimony the defense didn’t dare challenge: Anderson’s cell phone.

A police forensics expert told the jury that call logs proved Anderson was in the neighborhood at the time of the murder, and that he even made a phone call through a cell tower located just a quarter-mile from the blaze. Anderson’s lawyer didn’t attempt to question what was then bleeding-edge scientific evidence. “Nobody challenged the officer in the investigation,” says David Bernstein, Anderson’s new attorney. “Probably because cell phones were such a new technology.”

Now down 13 years on a life sentence, Anderson has his first shot at freedom. The two eyewitnesses have recanted. And using information about cell-phone tower locations with some sleuthing on MapQuest, Bernstein recently showed an appeals court that Anderson’s cell phone was in a car driving away from the site of the crime at the time the arsonist was splashing gasoline around the converted garage. The closest transmitter the phone passed was a mile away from the crime, not a quarter-mile as the police claimed; and by the time the fire was hurling black smoke into the south Los Angeles sky, Anderson’s phone was linking with a different transmitter six miles away, in Chinatown.

Based on this new information, a three-judge panel of the California 2nd District Court of Appeal ordered the case reopened last month, and gave the Los Angeles court that convicted Anderson until August to hold hearings on the new evidence, or release Anderson.

Evidence from cellphones has been effective in some high profile convictions as well. If your interested in learning more, check out these Draft Specifications from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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