Nerding is a hard business to sell to any jury. In someways it is easier to sell the jury on the art of detecting the smell of human decomposition. A jury can wrap their heads around the idea of burying a dead body or dead pig and periodically smelling the air. As I recall Mythbusters did something similar involving removing the smell of a decaying pig from a car. It was far being a scientific experiment, but it was amusing. The smell could not be erased. This was a car that no one would ever want to drive again.

Computer nerding is a different game, a game that many people do not understand. In fact electronic nerding in general is not understood. A good example is the cell phone. You don’t need a Smartphone, a $20 disposable one with no GPS capability will still give a general idea of your location. Simple geometry based on data received from a cell site says much.  At the most simplistic level, if the cell tower that picks up your signal is in California, there is a good chance that the phone is in California rather than New York. Cell phones transmit at a very low level. Only a cell site in the local area will pick up the signal. Of course the system is a little more complex. If someone is moving, lets say driving down the road, the cell system needs to ‘hand off’ the call to another site as the signal weakens. In fact most cell systems use at least three cell towers to track the call, using some high school geometry and physics you can make a pretty good determination of the general location of the phone.

It is not voodoo it is simple math.

The computer forensics are in many ways similar. But I will be the first to admit that nerd testimony can be tough stuff to digest.

I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised at some of the TV analysis of the effectiveness of the prosecutions presentation. I decided to ask well known Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer John Contini his thoughts on using digital forensics in a court room setting.

Simon: Are digital forensics a useful tool in a trial?

John Contini: Yes, Simon, digital forensics has indeed become a powerful new area of evidence and suffice it to say, its impact can be devastating as against a defendant.

Simon: You have been involved in many trials, have you yourself ever had cause to introduce ‘nerd’ evidence?

John Contini: My own use of computer experts in court has taught me something I didn’t previously know — something these jurors are perhaps learning now, ie, that nothing is truly deleted from your computer just because you think you deleted it; it’s still there in the world of cyberspace and digital forensics, for the finding by just the right computer geek and expert, prosecution computer nerd.

In one case we  hired a “computer wizard,” and for all of our education, he resurrected dozens of child porn files that a particular witness had “deleted” — and yet to that man’s dismay, the files were then available for all of us to see.

Simon: Focusing on the Casey Anthony trial, was there anything particular that caught your attention in the digital forensics evidence yesterday?

John Contini: The fact that someone at that Anthony home did a computer search for chloroform, and the fact that an earlier expert already testified to chloroform being used in this child’s journey toward death, is extremely compelling circumstantial evidence, to say the least, and more to the point, it’s crippling for the defense. These jurors don’t have to be forensic scientists or computer nerds, to know how terrible this plays for anyone on trial who was living in that home. This is hugely inconsistent with a pool drowning and the defense of a cover up after an accidental death.

My thoughts are that the digital forensics in the Casey Anthony trial offer yet another layer to the prosecution case. However as someone that knows a little about the science of digital forensics, I also can see some of the potential shortcomings. A couple of years ago I had a ‘spirited’ discussion with John Lucich (A computer nerd that appears from time to time on the Nancy Grace show).  Quite honestly he was talking a load of BS. It does not take great science to doctor digital evidence. Sure it might be out of the realm of the average ‘Farmville’ player, but is relatively trivial from a technical aspect. If you would like to get a flavor of my discussion with the Nancy nerd you can read it here.

Do not get me wrong, I do not think that Casey, George, Lee, or Cindy fiddled with the data. However there are many aspects to the digital evidence and analysis that do need some very careful thought. The data analysis was based on the ‘history’ log from a Windows computer running Firefox version 2. This version of Firefox supported Tabbed Browsing. In simple terms the time stamps of when a site was visited, do not necessarily reflect the amount of time that a site was open. The defense hammered away that it was 7 seconds here, 1 minute there, but that may not be the case at all. It is common for me to run multiple tabs, as many as 10 or more. It may appear from the history logs that I only spent a few seconds on a site, but in reality I have been there for hours!

I am somewhat surprised that the prosecution missed this aspect and permitted the defense to play the 7 second game.

Simon Barrett

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