Scan Data Plays Integral Part in Murder Trial

When Detective Frank McDonagh, of the Albany Police Department in New York, was assigned to the Forensic Investigation Unit two-and-a-half years ago, the unit had recently transitioned from total station to a Leica ScanStation high-definition 3D laser scanner. It was a welcome change for McDonagh, who now leads the unit’s scan team. “I see the product that the total station puts out compared to the product the scanner puts out,” McDonagh said, “and the scanner is amazing.”

With a total station, the investigators would leave a scene with a limited number of measurements they collected that day. The laser scanner comprehensively, accurately and objectively captures millions of points of measurement, preserving the scene in a virtual time capsule. “If we go back and look at the data a year later and something else comes into play—for example, we need a measurement from here or this point of view—we have it all because the scanner captures everything,” McDonagh said. “At the time, we may not know that we need it.”

Scanning the scene

This ability to revisit the virtual crime scene played an integral part in the recent murder trial of Jaushi’ir Weaver. Shortly after 1 a.m. on May 5, 2015, Weaver, who was 16 at the time, fired a semiautomatic weapon into a crowd of people gathered on Lark Street in downtown Albany. The shots killed 27-year-old Courtney Yates and injured two others.

To capture the crime scene, which comprised an entire city block, McDonagh created a scan plan of nine ScanWorlds and mounted the ScanStation and tripod on a rolling base for ease of movement. “There was a shooting across the street where there were shell casings, and we scanned down the block and across the street to where the victim was located,” McDonagh said. “Then we scanned back down on the other side of the street on the sidewalk to capture all that because that’s where the groups of people had been hanging out and where another victim was found.”

Because the laser scanner captures whatever is in its line-of-sight, scanning down both sides of the sidewalks also ensured McDonagh would eliminate any data gaps, or shadows, caused by obstructions on the car-lined street. “This also enabled us to capture all the numbers on the houses for orientation to show where we were at the scene.”

Back at the office, the nine scans were quickly aligned, or registered, with Leica’s Cyclone point cloud processing software and the data handed over to the district attorney’s office for their use.

Witness viewpoint gives jury perspective

When the case went to trial a year later, the defendant claimed he was shooting farther down the block, not at the crowd. Because the scene was captured with a laser scanner—and Weaver was captured by a street surveillance camera—the jury members could see for themselves within the Leica software what was in the defendant’s line-of-sight. “From where we know he was standing from surveillance video, we were able to move, in Cyclone, over to that location and put a witness viewpoint camera exactly on where it showed him being on camera. We accounted for his height, put the viewpoint at his eye level, and we were able to see what he could see from that location,” McDonagh said. “We were able to disprove the defendant’s story.”

In addition to placing a witness viewpoint on the defendant, McDonagh also positioned one on the surveillance camera. “This was to visually show the jury that the surveillance camera was across the street from where the shooting was going on and to enable them to see the view from the camera’s position,” McDonagh said.

Without the ability of Leica Cyclone to provide the defendant’s viewpoint, the jury would have had no way of verifying or discrediting Weaver’s story. “I could go there and say I looked at it from the scene and it doesn’t look like he could see that,” McDonagh explained. “We testify all the time, and the defense attorneys will try to disprove and discredit us, but to be able to present any witness or camera viewpoint to the jury is great.”

Cyclone data admitted for first time in Albany court

Prior to this case, Leica ScanStation data had been admitted as scientific evidence into Albany court on two separate cases in the form of Leica Truviews, Leica’s 3D visualization software. But this case marked the first time in Albany that data had been admitted within Leica Cyclone software. “In this case, we were able to use both the TruView and the Cyclone,” McDonagh said. “And we got them admitted into evidence without challenge.”

Unlike two-dimensional work products, laser scan data enables the jury members to virtually visit the scene in 3D. “The exciting part is to show it to a jury and then to be able to say that this is the actual scene as we found it when we first responded to the incident,” McDonagh said. “It’s not a drawing that we made or an animation or pictures that we pulled from Google. It’s actually the crime scene made up of points or photos, depending upon what part of the program you are utilizing.”

A successful conviction

On April 22, 2016, Weaver was found guilty of second-degree murder and felony weapon possession. Shortly afterward, the Albany Police Department received a letter of thanks from Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Cheryl Fowler, who tried the case, saying: “I believe the use of the scanner at trial was invaluable. Det. McDonagh was able to put defendant Weaver in a particular location within the scene and the jury was able to see exactly what the defendant saw at the moment he was firing. This became particularly important in light of the story the defendant was telling.”

A year ago, the Forensic Investigation Team had no way of knowing the how vital the Leica ScanStation data would be to the prosecution when the case would eventually come to trial. “We didn’t know where he was standing at the time of the incident when we were scanning because we didn’t have all the surveillance. We didn’t have all the stories. We didn’t have anything. We came out right as the scene was happening,” McDonagh said. “So to be able to do that a year later and have all those points there is unbelievable because when it is a hot crime scene, you just don’t know what you don’t know yet.”

To learn more about high-accuracy mapping solutions for law enforcement and crime scene investigation, contact the Leica Geosystems PSG team.

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