Dive Into The Data: Prosecutors Say New High-Tech Criminal Units Will Benefit; public defenders are not so sure

When Scottie Kincade was charged with intentional or intentional murder, indictable murder in arson, and level 4 arson in the death of his longtime girlfriend, he did what many accused do. – point the finger at someone else.

The Warren County man and his girlfriend, Heather Smith, had been together for 20 years in what court documents describe as a “violent and combative relationship” that produced three children. Smith was trying to break up, dating other men, planning to move to Kansas and get another protection order.

However, on September 27, 2016, black smoke began to rise from his home in Williamsport around lunchtime, and when the fire was finally put out, Smith’s body was discovered near the bedroom. . Kincade was arrested the next morning.

John larson

Six weeks before the trial began, prosecutor John Larson was confident he would get a guilty verdict, but Kincade was laying charges that might have made the jury hesitate. It pointed to the convicted arsonist who lived one block from Smith and one of Smith’s friends who had a date to have lunch with her on the day she died.

Larson said the prosecution had “heaps and heaps of cell phone recordings,” but extracting more than superficial information would have been too long and laborious. By chance, he learned of a partnership between the Tippecanoe County District Attorney and Purdue University to examine digital data, namely cellphone recordings, collected in connection with a crime.

The prosecutor obtained an invitation from Purdue and watched for about an hour as the researcher put the thousands of pages of data from the cell phone into the software.

Before his eyes, the numbers revealed that the arsonist and the gentleman friend were nowhere near the house at the time of the fire and that, among other damning evidence, Kincade called or texted Smith. 65 times on the morning of the fire but did not send any messages after 12 noon.

“We were able to eliminate two types of falls that were really viable for crime using digital evidence,” Larson said.

The technology and expertise Larson was able to use to help convict Kincade will soon be available to prosecutors statewide.

With a total two-year credit of $ 6 million from the state, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council is working with local prosecutors’ offices to establish 10 high-tech criminal units that will be able to process and analyze evidence. data collected by law enforcement from 2022. Each high-tech unit will be placed in a host county that will serve as a regional hub for surrounding counties.

Additionally, most prosecutor’s offices housing high-tech criminal units will partner with a nearby college or university. The exception is Dearborn County, but according to the IPAC, this prosecutor’s office has already dealt with the digital evidence itself.

Chris Naylor

The units will be modeled after the teams created by the Tippecanoe and St. Joseph counties prosecutors. These offices have been working for a few years with their respective local universities, Purdue and Notre Dame, to scan digital data to locate and identify a suspect’s whereabouts and who they were talking to.

“Digital evidence has just grown exponentially over the past five to ten years,” said Chris Naylor, Executive Director of IPAC. “We’re not just talking about computer-related crimes. That’s virtually all murders, homicides, and serious violent crimes because the world lives on their phones.

Double check

The units were created by House Enrolled Act 1082, drafted in 2021 by Representative Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon.

During the House Court and Criminal Code Committee hearing, the Indiana Council of Public Defenders was neutral on the bill but called for parity, also allowing public defenders access to the units. .

The law signed by Governor Eric Holcomb does not mention public defenders. Of the program’s $ 3 million annually in appropriation, each high-tech unit will receive $ 285,000 per year to be used for staff as well as computer hardware and software, according to Naylor.

Corley

Bernice Corley, executive director of IPDC, said she sees the new law as part of the struggle of public defenders on several fronts for equal funding and resources. While prosecutors are fully supported by the state, public defenders depend on their respective counties to pay salaries and other expenses.

“The problem is, we don’t have the ability to independently verify information on the defense side,” Corley said of the high-tech units. “The defense shouldn’t depend entirely on the state to say what the evidence is.”

Some prosecutors have argued that even if their units conduct digital data review, the process could still reveal evidence that effectively exonerates a suspected person of any wrongdoing.

Ashley Spolarich, deputy public defender for Tippecanoe County, was skeptical. She said she did not plan for prosecutors to simply drop someone as a suspect if they went to the trouble of obtaining a search warrant and confiscating that cell phone, computer and other electronic devices. anybody.

Even when the prosecution is certain it has the person responsible for the crime, Spolarich noted that digital evidence is not infallible. Mobile phone tower triangulation data can differ from vendor to vendor, she said, so public defenders must have the funds to pay their own experts to review digital files. , which “sounds like gibberish at times.”

Therefore, the deployment of these new high-tech units for use by prosecutors adds to the burden on public defenders, Spolarich continued. By providing one-sided money, everything gets out of balance and makes the system unfair.

“I think it’s important for an expert to look at this type of evidence to make sure what the state is presenting is, in fact, correct,” Spolarich said. “If you can’t dispute the validity or how it was obtained, there’s always that kind of side thing where we frequently check the work done by the state to make sure it doesn’t present the digital evidence.” in a biased way. light.”

Phones are personal

When prosecutors talk about digital evidence, they are mainly referring to data collected from cell phones.

Eric Hoffmann

And while these devices can be misplaced or stolen, Delaware County District Attorney Eric Hoffman said not only do most everyone owns a smartphone, but they always take it with them.

In fact, Hoffman surmised that so much personal information is now available on every person’s cell phone that, given the choice of having their phone or their home searched, most people would choose to hand over their door keys. ‘Entrance.

“Everything about you is on your phone,” Hoffman said.

Cell phone data presented at trial can therefore be very powerful, the prosecutor said. While some perpetrators intentionally leave their cell phones behind, they often have it while committing crimes, and information obtained from the devices can link suspects to illegal acts.

Jeremy Holland’s murder conviction is one example. Muncie’s man has denied involvement in the execution-style murder of Jeffrey Brown, but cellphone recordings have placed Holland in the house where the victim was tied up at gunpoint and in the secluded property where the victim was shot several times.

Hoffman’s office and Ball State University will collaborate to house one of the high-tech units.

Zachary Craig, the Delaware County assistant chief prosecutor who led the Holland case prosecution, called the new unit a “game changer.” Analysis of the data will be done quickly, he said, which could allow law enforcement to obtain the information and verify the veracity of a suspect during questioning.

“It will open so many more doors for law enforcement,” Craig said.


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