Interview: How Criminal Investigator Victor Pizzola Provides a New Perspective through Point Clouds
As a detective, Victor Pizzola used to build cases and drop them off at the district attorney’s office for prosecution. Now the criminal investigator for the Albany County District Attorney’s Office is on the receiving end, taking what’s already been built and helping the prosecutors prepare cases for trial.
The position has given Pizzola a new perspective on the criminal justice process. But when he made the transition in May 2015, he brought along valuable insight of his own, not only from years as a detective in the Albany Police Department’s Forensic Investigations Unit but also in the use of the department’s laser scanning technology.
With the Albany Police Department deploying its Leica ScanStation to more scenes every year, it made sense for the district attorney to bring onboard an investigator who could also optimize the valuable scan data coming into the office. Enter Pizzola. “I can interpret and produce certain things out of the software and the TruView program for trial preparation and for impending trials,” Pizzola said.
How does your work with the DA’s office differ from being a detective with the police department?
Pizzola: In terms of what I did before, I was responding to calls for service and processing crime scenes, gathering any evidence that may have been left behind, and then processing those items to go to the New York State Police lab for DNA or trace-evidence analysis. I was in crime scenes for hours after everybody else had left.
This new job is kind of on the other side of that. (I’m still a police officer in the state of New York. I wasn’t ready to give that up.) Now I may get a call to tour the scene several hours later. Even though I don’t go in and do what I used to do, I’m a lot more able to assist local agencies with the technical experience I have—the video recovery, clarification of the scanner—and even with forensics.
Whenever they call and say they need somebody, I try to give them a helping hand. For example, we were called to a homicide in the city of Albany. When I got there, the detectives were still on site scanning, so I was able to talk with the guys and make sure everything was working right. I also counseled with them on a couple of different scan locations that would be of value, even though it would add more scanning time.
About how often does the DA’s office receive scan data?
Pizzola: I can’t give an exact number because it obviously depends on a number of factors, but I would say we’ve been getting around a dozen per year now. We take scan data from the City of Albany Police Department and from the New York State Police, which now has, I believe, three Leica scanners—one stationed locally in our area. Any time they take the scanner out and collect scan data, they give us that data, and we review and use it in any capacity we need.
The Albany Police Department is deploying its scanner more often. We kind of had a phasing-in stage when we began. But the last full year I was there, I think we were out somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 times. So they are going out more and more with the scanner every year, which means more scan data for the district attorney’s office.
What does the DA’s office do with the scan data?
Pizzola: The police agency will export the scene into a TruView and provide it to the district attorney’s office, and we’ll copy that and provide it to the defense attorney. The Leica TruView point cloud viewer is free. We just have to show them how to use it. There are often settings on their computers that have to be changed.
Then, with my background, I’ll be called in to whichever assistant district attorney is handling the case. I’ll say, ‘You’re the director, and I’m the producer. You tell me how many pictures you want, how many videos you want, and what kind of audio you want to put in there, and we’ll do that.’ TruView is an amazing piece of software that allows us to do all that. It’s truly amazing.
After the TruView is created, the production part is mostly click and drag. We add hotlinks, which direct viewers to a photo, an audio-visual file or even a Cyclone flythrough. The attorneys like flythroughs because they provide a great overview, and the juries are blown away by them. It takes many hours of work to get it to where it’s right. Then the TruView Pack and Go tool embeds everything onto one disc, which is playable on any computer that has TruView program installed.
If the case goes to trial, we give that to the defense attorneys, as well. We could just give them digital copies of all the photos and a copy of the audio and a copy of video, but we’d rather give them our final product and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re using so you know and so you don’t object to it when we’re in the proceedings.’
How does scan data benefit the work of the DA’s office?
Pizzola: On the police side, the scan data is for the investigation. On the DA’s side, it’s for prosecution. It gives us that one more piece that the jurors want. We’re able to bring the jury to the scene right after the crime happens, and the jurors like to have that ability.
The district attorneys presenting the cases may not use every ScanWorld that’s created, but they will use a few of them to help bring the evidence into perspective of the crime. For example, giving the jury perspective on how far away the first gunshot and projectile strike were from the second projectile strike—all that measurement data is invaluable when it comes to presenting the case to a jury.
How have defense attorneys reacted to scan data?
Pizzola: The defense attorneys were very cautious in our first trial where I was able to get the scan data in. They don’t know the science yet, so they’re just trying to basically say that it’s not an established science and shouldn’t be entered into court.
Here on the East Coast, attorneys really haven’t been dealing with it. The City of Albany Police Department was the first agency north of New York City to have this equipment so, again, nobody’s really seen it.
Any time you get something new, the defense attorneys are going to object. Just 25 years ago, it’s what we had to do with radar guns for speed trials. Today, when you have a trial with radar, we get a conviction because the science is now founded and accepted. Likewise, the more scan data starts to come into court, the more it will be accepted.
Is education an important part of your job?
Pizzola: Absolutely. As a detective, I worked for the last three years educating the Albany County District Attorney’s Office on the value of this data and this instrument. Now it’s trying to educate the judges and the jurors while I’m sitting on the stand. I think keeping it simple is very helpful in terms of getting the jurors to understand the technology, but is a lot about education.
What advice do you have for other investigators presenting scan data in court?
Pizzola: Simplicity is key. When I was prepping my replacement at the Albany Police Department for his trial testimony, I said to him: ‘You’ve got to keep it simple. Let’s not use the big words. We utilize the tools that we have to kind of draw a digital picture.’ Being able to say that in the simplest terms, I believe, is why we were successful in getting that data in without any trouble at all.
I would also say, make sure your equipment is maintained, your software updates are all current, and your equipment is calibrated. And the rest of it will fall into place. Taking care of your equipment is going to help you take care of things in court.
Has ScanStation data been accepted as scientific evidence under New York’s Frye Standard?
Pizzola: We’ve had the scan data admitted in two separate trials in New York State Court here in Albany. The judges were very good with allowing it in after the requisite foundation was established.
Frank Hahnel came up for the very first presentation. He was on standby as an expert in case I needed backup. But I was able to get it in. They accepted it, and we convicted two guys of murder.
It was a victory for the Albany Police Department, when I was there, that we got it in the first time and then for the DA’s office who was able to say that the laser scanner helped in the prosecution of a homicide in the city of Albany.
A laser scanner is a big investment. From your perspective, is it worth it?
Pizzola: It’s absolutely worth it. I came from the total station side where we used to go to a scene, let’s say a fatal crash or homicide, and we would be on that scene for six, seven or eight hours, and we’d only capture maybe 300 points of data. With the Leica ScanStation, I can go to that same scene, capture everything I need with the scanner within two hours and have 60- or 70-million points of data, which then creates the point cloud, which then gives me a virtual image of the crime scene, and I’m confident that the data will hold up in court.
Being that I came from the side of kind of the forefathers of the technology and seeing what’s out there now, this technology is worth the investment in my opinion.
Now that you work for the DA’s office, what future role would you like to see laser scanners play?
Pizzola: I would like to see the district attorney’s office move into a position where we buy and maintain a scanner. Then if there are agencies that need the equipment but can’t afford it on their own, they can just call the district attorney’s office, and somebody can come out and help them capture the data from a certain scene.
Providing access to a laser scanner would ultimately help the district attorney’s office fulfill its mission to not only build its case but also prove the case to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and ensure justice for the entire community.