The Julie Amero case teaches a necessary lesson: Courts have yet to acquire the means to deal reliably with computer-generated evidence.
The Norwich substitute teacher was granted a new trial June 6, effectively erasing her conviction on four counts of risk of injury to a minor. New London Superior Court Judge Hillary Strackbein approved Amero's request for a new trial when it became apparent that police testimony about the computer images was wrong.
Put in more graphic terms: Flawed testimony from a police detective with no real expertise in computer technology led to the conviction of a woman who most likely committed no crime.
Amero was convicted of risk of injury to a minor for permitting students in a Norwich school to view pornographic images on a classroom computer. Her defense was that the images had appeared on her screen unbidden, as pop-ups generated by spyware. She neither summoned the images nor caused them to be displayed to students, she claimed.
Had Amero flashed the images intentionally, there is no question that she would be guilty of a crime. She was criticized by some for not simply pulling the computer's plug from the electrical socket once the peep show began.
Judge Strackbein prevented Amero's expert from testifying at trial about how the images appeared. It turns out trial counsel did not disclose the witness in a timely manner. The new trial petition moots the inevitable habeas corpus petition for ineffective assistance of counsel.
On review of the evidence post-verdict, the state police crime lab determined the Norwich police detective's testimony about the computer-generated images was flawed. How many times has this detective testified before about computers?
I am reminded of a case I tried years ago. The defendant's name is Al Swinton. He is now doing 60 years for murder.
The case turned on the matching of dental impressions to bite marks on the corpse of a young woman. When the forensic odontologist testified about how computer-enhanced images matched the bite marks, I objected. The dentist had no idea how the computer manipulated the images. Neither did the state police officer who testified. The trial court permitted the evidence to be admitted.
Years later, after a brilliant appellate brief by James Streeto, the state Supreme Court found it was error to admit that evidence. But, as is so often the case in such matters, the court held the error was harmless. I still wonder whether Swinton would have been convicted absent the voodoo technology.
A similar issue arose not long ago in a case I tried against John Danaher, now the state's public safety commissioner. An FBI agent with a fine arts background testified about computer-enhanced images of a hat band that the federal government used to link my client to the robbery of a jewelry store. The agent's testimony about digital manipulation of images came down to this: it is reliable because we use it all the time.
Chief Justice Chase Rogers is reaching out far and wide to tap lawyers and judges to sit on committees for all manner of things. How about a committee on evidentiary standards for computer-generated evidence? The bar is ignorant. And innocent people are getting hurt. Just ask Julie Amero.
Reprinted with permission of The Connecticut Law Tribune.