A decent bloke with no known enemies dies after being shot with a crossbow. How did technology lead to the killer? And what else might that technology be used for?
I wrote last year about a motor insurance case called Wise v Hegarty & Alpha Insurance under the headline When the car sneaks on you and your social media betrays you.
It was about an alleged motor accident which had caused insurers to investigate the telematics data in one of the cars. Telematics embraces vehicle movements and telecommunications and it lies behind the “black box” devices which insurers use primarily to evaluate the driving skills of insured drivers. It can do much more than that, however, including keeping records of the times of engines starting and stopping, the opening and closing of doors, and the history of speeds and locations. It doesn’t just record these things, but transmits them for immediate analysis. In the car accident case, the telematics data showed no relevant activity of time, place and movement. Once the court accepted that the equipment was capable of making such records and had done so, that sufficed to damn both the vehicle owners.
Similar equipment and deductions have now helped convict a man for shooting another man with a crossbow. When I say “helped” I mean that without it, the police would have had a problem converting their initial lead into hard evidence.
I think that few of my readers are likely to come across car insurance fraud or crossbow murders. My purpose in pointing you to the stories is the increasing prevalence of electronic data quietly reporting on your every move. And by “your”, I mean every move made by clients, their opponents, the witnesses, and every other participant in a crime or civil dispute.
Here is a comprehensive account of the investigation from the BBC. Some old-fashioned enquiries initially brought the police to Terry Whall’s door, but they had nothing to link him to the murder. The bit which matters from the technology point of view is the built-in telematics system in Whall’s partner’s Land Rover Discovery, which transmitted data about the car’s movements, including the opening and closing of doors and boot.
The important word is “transmitted”. The Land Rover was burnt out, presumably in an attempt to destroy the data, but the data had been sent to Land Rover as it was created. As the BBC report puts it:
It revealed Whall had parked at Porth Dafarch beach – a short walk from Mr Corrigan’s home – at 23:10 on 18 April.
The boot was opened at 23:11:04 and closed 39 seconds later. This was Whall, said prosecutors, removing the crossbow.
Mr Corrigan was shot at either 00:29 or 00:30 on 19 April.
Again, modern technology – this time from Sky’s records – proved a satellite signal was present at his home at 00:08. Its records show that at 00:28, the viewer (Mr Corrigan) stopped a pre-recorded programme and the satellite signal was “no longer present”.
Roughly 12 minutes later, the Land Rover’s boot was opened back at the beach. It closed 14 seconds later, at 00:42:49.
Police traffic cameras picked up the car on its journey home, and the telematics data recorded the boot opening and closing at Whall’s home – this was presumed to be Whall removing the crossbow.
This type of case does not traditionally generate much in the way of documentation. This time, there were 5,500 documents (presumably mainly from the telematics), and 50 police officers worked on the evidence.
If it wasn’t for the electronics, the black box in the Land Rover – which didn’t just record information but sent it to Jaguar Land Rover, Whall would have got away with his lies,” the jury was told.
As I said, few of us get involved in this kind of investigation. But every day brings cases which may be of less significance but which might nevertheless turn on this kind of electronic evidence, whether it be sophisticated telematics or simple time and location evidence from a picture. Proportionality plays its part – few cases warrant 5,500 documents and the time of 50 police officers just to show that someone was at a certain place at a certain time – but you can’t make proportionality decisions about the retrieval and use of electronic data if you never apply your mind to the possibility that it may exist.
There is a privacy point here as well. The owner of the Land Rover perhaps signed up to have her data sent to Land Rover. Terry Whall presumably did not know that his movement data was being transmitted, and few will sympathise with him in the circumstances of this case. Between the person who did agree to this use of the data, and the person who was convicted for murder because of it, lie the passengers who are being tracked without knowing it, without their consent and with no collateral advantage such as the reduced insurance premium given to the vehicle’s owner. Perhaps your neighbourhood benefits if the police use data from your neighbour’s front door camera, but you gave up your privacy for that, and without having enough information to evaluate the balance the competing factors.
Perhaps that ship has sailed. The important thing, as a lawyer or investigator, is to consider what data might exist which will prove or disprove something you ought to know.