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How to Become a Forensic Expert

Monday, September 29th, 2014

AudioForensicLabWeb-300x182 How to Become a Forensic ExpertI recently created a podcast series on iTunes called BlindSpot. I created it for people who are interested in knowing more about becoming a forensic expert. The name BlindSpot comes from the concept that forensic experts see and hear what other people cannot. Forensic experts in various fields reveal the ‘blind spot’ by identifying and acquiring evidence using their experience and expertise as forensic scientists.

In this blog post I want to discuss an overview of what it takes to become an expert witness.  How do you transition your career into a forensic expert? What do you have to do to become a forensic expert in your industry? What do you do once you believe you have completed the necessary steps in order to be successful, especially in the courtroom?

Being a forensic expert requires the scientific expertise necessary to investigate a piece of evidence being used in court. Forensic accountants know how to use software programs as well as their learned skills to help them solve accounting mysteries. They are also very good at math and problem solving. Forensic accountants are brought in when people suspect fraud and embezzlement, both personally and professionally. They can go back in ledgers and bank statements to determine the ‘who and how’ about the missing moolah.  How did 20 million dollars in cash vanish from a business? Where did the tax dollars go from the city treasury?

Many Fields of Forensic Experts

A forensic accountant has the talent, skill and ability to solve these mysteries. But where did their talent come from? I believe we are all born with a gifted talent that lifts us up above the average person. Much of a forensic expert’s training is in the classroom.  I believe the best forensic experts not only perfect their expertise in training but they are also born with their expertise.

Computer forensic experts investigate computer systems to help solve mysteries about deleted files and operating system behavior. They look for deleted files and other computer trails in the operating history.  There is often an electronic trail left behind in a computer when a file has been deleted. Computer forensic experts are called in when police confiscate computer equipment after a crime was committed. They look for clues to help the police convict or acquit the arrested. Computer forensic experts also get involved with forensic accountants to help solve financial crimes because much of today’s accounting is done on computers.

Computer forensic experts also understand modified, accessed and created meta data that helps litigators understand the truth about an evidence file. Knowing this forensic information helps the authorities understand a suspect’s behavior and intent surrounding a crime or alleged crime.

Civil Engineers help accident reconstruction forensic experts with recreating an accident scene. Using video and or animation, these forensic experts bring the accident scene into the court room very scientifically and accurately depicting the faults involved so that the judge and jury better understand the accident scene and events that occurred leading up to the accident.

Medical experts help litigators understand medical procedures and how medical methodology should be followed. They explain in reports and testimony how a medical accident occurred and how it could have been avoided. They also explain to the judge and jury what went wrong or what was right about a malpractice procedure in question.

So where do you begin your process with becoming a forensic expert?

Look at your resume. If you don’t have a resume, make one. If you don’t know how to make a resume, find somebody that does and ask for help. Your resume is the starting point for your forensic career. This document will eventually become your forensic expert curriculum vitae, CV, which is Latin for resume.

If you have graduated college, look around for some continuing education training in your field of expertise. This training can be a certificate course taught by another established forensic expert or forensic association. You can also start by designing problem solving experiments. Science is observation and the more experience you have observing science as a forensic expert, the better.

Join some associations and attend their meetings. This is a great way to learn more about your field of expertise, as well as meet people who will eventually become your peers. You can learn a lot by networking with your peers. Casual dinner conversation usually includes previous case stories that communicate experience. Once you get to know your peers, you can ask one that you have connected with to mentor you as you begin your transition into becoming a forensic expert.

I have started a mentor program and work with aspiring audio video forensic experts around the world.

Testifying and Non Testifying Forensic Experts

Not all forensic experts decide to become expert witnesses and appear in court. There are many qualified experts in hundreds of fields who choose to avoid the stress of testifying and focus only on their scientific forensic work. Testifying in court is incredibly challenging and requires a lot of preparation to withstand the pressure and the stress of the courtroom – and yes, there is stress.

Personally, I’ve found there are two aspects to my career as an audio and video forensic expert. The first is my actual audio and video forensic skills; the lab work and reports I write leading up to testifying in court. This includes audio and video enhancement, authentication and voice identification. There are hundreds of forensic fields which need more experts because of growth and expansion.

The second aspect to my career is testifying.  This skill almost outweighs my expert experience in the laboratory as far as importance, in my mind. This requires you to not only know your field of expertise, but to also know how to speak about your work and act in the courtroom. I’ve worked on and testified in hundreds of forensic assignments and court cases over the last thirty years, which has helped me build my reputation and credibility as an expert witness.

There are many things that a forensic expert should keep in mind when they’re planning on testifying in court.

First, think about working closely with your client attorney and make sure that you’re both on the same page when it comes to trial. I’ve had a lot of lawyers over the years procrastinate on that pre-trial ‘huddle’ I like to call it, or conference, so that you understand what is expected of you. You can then anticipate what the prosecution or the opposing counsel may ask you during cross examination, which is one of the most important aspects to trial preparation – anticipate the cross examination.

Of course you’re going to dress like a pro. Dressing and acting accordingly while in court is crucial to determine an expert’s integrity in any case, especially in the eyes of the jury. I remember working a case once, in Lower Manhattan Federal Court, and the experts were sequestered, which means we all had to wait in the hallway and we couldn’t hear previous testimony or any other details about the case. After a few hours everyone broke for lunch and I remember talking to my attorney – which, this was the first time we had met – and she told me that there was a psychologist on the stand. Just at that very moment the woman who was the psychologist left the courtroom, looking a little flustered and she had this amazing cloud of perfume following her (and I’m using the word ‘cloud’ to be polite!). So, another hour or so after lunch and it was my turn to go into court and testify. When I sat at the witness stand all I could smell in the courtroom was that perfume. I have to be honest with you, it kind of annoyed me a bit, and if I was annoyed I suspect that there were a few people on the jury that were probably annoyed, and they had to sit with that woman a lot longer than I had to deal with that cloud that had lingered behind her in the witness stand.

So, dressing is not just the clothes that you wear. It is your hair, your perfume or cologne; it is your overall appearance. And I’ve been told – and I’m only saying this to express and not impress – that I’m pretty good in front of a jury and I’d like to think it’s because I maintain a conservative look, I know how to talk and I know how to make eye contact. These are all important ingredients when you’re in court testifying. But I’m digressing a little bit. I guess that I am passionate about testifying, which is why I’m starting here in this post.

Transition your Career from Professional to Forensic Expert

How do you transition your career into an expert witness? By writing your curriculum vitae (CV), completing forensic assignments, writing reports, courtroom experience, and understanding what it means to be under oath.

Regardless of whether or not you’re going to be a scientist and stick to the lab or an expert witness and do both lab work and testifying, you really need to know how to complete a forensic assignment. So if you’re thinking about a career as an expert witness, consider your training and continuing your education. This is the starting point for transitioning your profession into becoming a forensic expert. It is really important continue your education throughout the course of your forensic expert career. That includes both online and in classroom training. Doing so will help you stay current with your steps that you’re taking in regard to forensic assignments and the processes that you’re undergoing when you’re conducting your forensic analyses. That will turn into a forensic report, which is also your script when testifying.

Next, when becoming a forensic expert that testifies, it is very important to gain courtroom experience. Of course when you first start your forensic career you probably don’t have court experience, and if you do, well, you’re ahead of the game. That first time that you step foot into the courtroom and the first time that you testify will help to increase your confidence so that you continue to have an opportunity to practice as an expert witness and get more experience in the courtroom. You will keep track of your experience in the courtroom and you will add this to your curriculum vitae.

Your CV is a work in progress. Add your deposition and your courtroom experience to your curriculum vitae as the assignments are completed. This helps to increase your integrity, as well as your experience, and your perceived value to your prospects.

What does it mean to be under oath? When you walk into the courtroom and you raise your right hand and you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God, that means you can go to prison if you’re caught lying.

Expert witnesses need to run from being perceived or even thinking about being a ‘hired gun’. You don’t want to think about the money and the financial gain to the work that you’re going to do. Rather, you should want to be a scientist and stick to the facts and what you can solemnly swear to be the truth when you raise that right hand. Perjury is nothing you want to get involved in. That is kind of the scary aspect to what I think keeps scientists out of the courtroom. And like I said earlier, you can certainly be a forensic expert without being an expert witness.

Preparation for trial is extremely important. The biggest problem I have with preparing for trial is getting the attorney that I’m working for or with to understand the importance of preparing for trial. Often I have to tackle the attorney by demanding a call with them prior to getting on an airplane or going to the courthouse – I happen to testify more out of state than I do in-state – and I have to have a call with them before I show up wherever I’m going to testify. Sometimes that is at nine or ten at night before I get on the airplane. That is fine, as long as we exchange what their expectations are, what my beliefs about the case are and we get a little bit of a strategy going so that I can write some questions to help them in court. I like to create some questions that are based on my experience and my expertise for the attorney to utilize like a script. Then, they can ask me direct examination questions while I am on the stand.

Preparation also involves anticipating cross examination questions. Those are questions that should be written and presented to your client attorney. Those cross-examination questions can be turned into direct examination questions. That way, you can ‘deflate’ the opposing side or the prosecutor’s questions before they even have an opportunity to ask. A lot of times, those anticipated cross examination questions are the elephant in the room that you can get out now instead of ‘Well, we’ll wing it and see what happens,’ which is exactly what you don’t want to do.

How do you dress and act when you go into a courtroom? You have to be very conservative. Tattoos and piercings, facial hair and dyed hair (pink, purple) are not good ideas if you are thinking about a career as an expert witness. You should wear a tie if you’re a man; both men and women should wear suits. Men could wear a sport coat and slacks and they should always have dress shoes on. Either way your clothes should look recently purchased. Remember, you’re making good money as an expert witness – break down every couple of years and rotate your wardrobe. Don’t keep trying to wear those shirts that don’t fit any more and have the buttons stretched to the point where one could pop and take out somebody’s eye in the courtroom.

I’ve seen a lot of people walk into court that call themselves expert witnesses and have improper packaging. You really need to look impressive when you walk into that room. I’m not talking flashy, I’m talking attractive and put together so that the jury can perceive you as being a person of integrity.

When you’re on the stand and looking sharp, you want to pay careful attention to the questions that you’re being asked and you want to answer those questions in short sentences. Even if you have to answer a difficult question during cross examination, don’t ramble trying to accommodate or correct a wrong that is completely out of your control. Answer those questions direct and in short sentences. The attorney who is asking the questions, or the prosecutor, will probe if they want more information. Don’t offer more information randomly; just answer the question that has been asked.

There are two aspects to your examination. The first is direct and I’ve touched on that a little bit previously. This is where the defense attorney that you’ve been retained by will begin by asking you questions that will help reveal your work and the scientific observations that you have made. Then there is the cross examination. That is where the opposing side, the prosecution in a criminal case, asks you questions to try to derail your train of thought when it comes to your opinions. They’re going to use trick questions to try to make you not look good as an expert witness. This is where you really need to stay cool, because their job is to try to reduce your perceived value or integrity in the eyes of the jury (or the judge, if it’s a bench trial). You need to stay calm and cool and think about how you’re going to answer those questions and if you’re not sure you can always ask them to repeat the question. This gives you a few more seconds to think about how you want to answer the question that they just asked.

So what does it take to be an expert witness? It takes a well written CV that explains your experience and expertise and good report writing. It takes good forensic science and experience, which comes from training. It takes good courtroom experience and careful preparation for trial and testifying. You want to know how to dress, you want to pay attention to the questions and answer them in short sentences and you want to think about your examination experience as a two part process. The first is direct examination and the second is cross examination.

Subscribe to BlindSpot on iTunes and you’ll be notified of future episodes as they’re produced. We welcome your comments and questions at PrimeauForensics@gmail.com.

5 Tips for Preparing Digital Video Evidence for Court

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

1409594_29311718-300x199 5 Tips for Preparing Digital Video Evidence for Court

Video evidence is considered the most accurate representation of the events as they naturally occurred. In fact, surveillance videos today are considered more accurate than eye witness testimony alone. Once surveillance video has been properly authenticated and the source of the chain of custody is presented, surveillance videos CAN be used in a court of law. In the following blog post “5 Tips for Preparing Digital Video Evidence for Court” Video Forensic expert will teach its readers about the 5 major lessons our experts have learned and want to share with you about preparing your surveillance videos for use in court regardless of where you are located.

 

 

Tip One: Chain of Custody

Chain of custody is perhaps the most important tip from this post. Document and maintain a chain of custody on your video evidence.  A lack of an authentic chain of custody can cause the court to question the integrity of the surveillance videos and its admissibility. Lack of a proper chain of custody reduces the credibility of your video evidence.

For example, I currently have a case in house that includes a smart phone recording being used as video evidence. We preserved the video recordings on the smart phone. Why you might ask?  It is crucial to our investigation. There is plenty of storage space available on the phone. Of course, I established and documented the chain of custody when I downloaded the phone in my lab. I sometimes wonder as a scientist, how anyone can determine how a recording was created without an established chain of custody?

If it’s important, why were the video recordings not protected when it was created? If the video events depict a crime being committed and will be admissible in court, it is also important to maintain the chain of custody for authentication purposes. Verification and establishment of the chain of custody visually and digitally is necessary for forensic authentication analysis investigations down the line.

 

Tip Two: When possible, use the original video recording not a copy.

As a rule of thumb, always present the original digital video recording, not a copy. Copies of digital video recordings can be misrepresented if an authentic chain of custody isn’t maintained. Digital compression from copying and converting recordings can often times affect the authenticity of the events as they occurred. In addition, the digital information that is used to determine the circumstances in which the recording or recordings were created are effected if the recordings aren’t copied accurately. 

Sometimes, the surveillance videos may need to be clarified or enhanced. In this case, the original video recording cannot be presented, because the original recording has undergone changes. Once the video enhancement process has been completed accurately, the derivative video work product can be properly authenticated as an original representation of the events. This is done by presentation of the documentation that describes the enhancement process completed by a trained professional, like a video forensic expert.

If you are not sure you have the original or if you believe the copy you have has been altered, seek the help and guidance of a qualified and trained professional like a video forensic expert. An expert can authenticate the digital video recording scientifically and present a report of the digital integrity of the digital video file or files.  Our experts provide pro-bono consultation to all clients who are seeking the truth in regards to their video evidence. 

 

Tip Number Three: Prepare your playback software for courtroom use.

As a rule of thumb, always prepare playing your video recordings before you enter the court room. Make sure your video evidence is compatible for easy playback in court. Many of our clients at Primeau Forensics will give us a digital video recording to authenticate that was created on a closed circuit television surveillance system. Attorneys will often times enter a court room with a video requiring a proprietary player that will not open quickly. This keeps the trier of fact (judge and jury)  waiting for long periods of time, which can cause confusion and frustration. 

When I enhance a video recording for courtroom use, I always export the video recording from my forensic software using a file extension that is easier to open than some of the clunky proprietary players that CCTV systems rely on for recording playback.

Before expert witness testimony, i always prep with my clients on the phone and in person. Part of this prep time is used to double and triple check our exhibits, some of which are demonstrative.

Number four: Prepare your playback equipment for sight as well as sound.

Will the jury be able to hear the audio clearly?  Do you need a PA speaker or amplifier system to make the audio louder for everyone in court to hear? It is common when I testify that I bring in a suitcase of 1 to 2 options of playback equipment to ensure all video is presented properly and easily heard by all persons in the court room. 

Many courts that I have testified in have video playback equipment. Some of the video equipment that the court provides may not be a high enough quality higher resolution playback. Also, older systems may not be bright enough for the trier of fact (judge and jury) to preview from. Double check with the court before hand to determine what playback technology they have available. Bring in any equipment necessary or outsource a company to do so, so the Trier of Fact can easily see and hear your video recording. If you have to rent equipment, make sure it arrives well in advance of the trial.

Before litigation, i am often required to install proprietary courtroom viewing applications on my computer.  The app completely messed up my computer. Because this was during prep time, I was able to undo the app and make other arrangements to play the video recordings. These kinds of errors are CATASTROPHIC for testimony as well as your integrity and professionalism as an expert. Playback errors are better  handled outside of the courtroom.

Number five: Bring enough copies for everyone.

Do you have copies of your video evidence for everyone involved in the litigation? Remember, you have to put an evidence/exhibit sticker on your digital video evidence. DVD exhibits have space to apply stickers on the label side of the DVD (do not put a sticker on the laser or playing side of the DVD disc). Thumb drives are harder if not impossible to put evidence stickers on. Thumb drives are being used more and more in court as the digital file size is increasing with video evidence. Especially with high definition video recordings. When I present a thumb drive (jump drive, USB storage devise) I place the thumb drive in a small plastic evidence bag that looks like this:

digital-media-evidence-bag 5 Tips for Preparing Digital Video Evidence for Court

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evidence and exhibit stickers and information can be placed on the bag itself.

These are the top five tips when presenting digital evidence for court. If you have any questions about video recordings that will be used in your litigation as evidence, feel free to Contact Us!

The Importance of Communication during the Forensic Investigation

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

communication-investigation-1024x768 The Importance of Communication during the Forensic InvestigationThere are a lot of details to be discussed during a forensic investigation. Details like test results, trial strategy, discovery deadlines, opposing expert reports and deposition details to name a few. A forensic expert must communicate well with everyone on the litigation team during a forensic investigation so they understand the scientific results and how those results impact the case.

It is convenient and efficient for forensic experts to communicate forensic investigation processes, procedures and results on the phone. However, to save time and accommodate busy schedules, we also communicate with text and email. The important thing to remember about text and email is that unlike telephone conversations, text and email has permanency. Email and text messages can be shared with other people and are discoverable.

Before beginning any forensic investigation, we always ask our client attorney for their preferred method of communication. This is a best practice for us for many reasons. First, many of our client attorneys spend a lot of time in court. We do our best to communicate effectively and accommodate their schedule. Many times we provide a cell number to them so they can communicate with us at their convenience. Depending on the state or country, attorneys advise us how to or not to communicate, especially when it comes to text and email messages. Some client attorneys do not want any written communication. Rather they want all forensic investigation communication delivered verbally.

Written communication like text and email messages are good because when communication is in writing, it documents the events and has permanency. You can call this an intentional paper trail that is available for reference throughout the investigation process.  What is important and our goal in writing this article is to help you understand that written communication is not as private as verbal communication. Opposing attorneys can ask for all written communication to be available for review during the deposition process or at trial. Our client attorneys decide what form of communication is best and we respect that decision.

There is no such thing as too much communication during a forensic investigation

We have found that most of our client attorneys want to hear from forensic experts as often as necessary during a forensic investigation because scientific test results have an impact on trial strategy. However, over communicating has the opposite effect. Too many interruptions and delivery of incomplete information can be confusing and should be avoided.  As a general rule, it’s best to keep the forensic investigation as clean and free from superfluous communication as possible.

Bottom line, from a forensic experts perspective, understand your client attorneys expectations about communication and be aware that anything in written form can become part of the litigation process. For the most part, keep your forensic investigation communication to verbal.

Video Forensics and Post-Litigation Responsibility

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Post-Litigation-1024x681 Video Forensics and Post-Litigation ResponsibilityAs a video forensic expert I’m seeing more and more video evidence in criminal and civil litigation today. I examine the evidence, often having to identify elements in video recordings, creating images that are exported from the video recording, which are identified frames from the video that reveal details that are important to the litigation, and then enlarging the resolution and dots per inch in that video frame export to help identify logos on clothing, or license plate numbers, or make and model of cars or the year of a car to help identify who the subject in the video might be.

The work product that I build while conducting an investigation as a video forensic expert increases in size the longer the litigation continues. Upon completion of a criminal case or a settlement agreement by the parties involved in a civil litigation, the forensic expert must contact their client – whether it be the court, law enforcement or a lawyer, and ask them what should be done with the original evidence that was investigated as well as the work product that was created during the investigation. It is best, if possible, to get their instructions in writing (particularly if the instructions are to destroy the evidence and work product), just to protect yourself and make sure all your bases are covered.

The reason this is so crucial is because often one of the terms of a settlement is the destruction of all of the evidence that was used during the litigation. Should this evidence become compromised, accidentally, by anyone involved in the case, that would ruin the terms of the settlement for the parties in the litigation.

It is my responsibility, as a video forensic expert, to contact my client and ask what they want me to do with the evidence with which I was provided, as well as the work product, once the litigation is settled. In my opinion, there are two ways for the forensic examiner to release the work product and the original evidence that was worked on during the investigation.

Number one, return all of the evidence and your work product to the attorney, using delivery confirmation, with signature required.

The second way is destroying all of the evidence if that is what your client wants you to do. And by destroying the evidence I mean deleting all of the files that are on any internal and external hard drives on the computer that was used during the investigation, or destroying any compact discs or DVDs by breaking them in half or scratching the playing surfaces.

It’s very important for the forensic examiner to keep good notes during the investigation process so there is a paper trail of where all the media files the investigator worked on during the forensic investigation are stored so the expert knows where to go back to delete all of the work product and original evidence if there was no external evidence used.

The main purpose for external evidence – such as a DVD or CD-ROM – is because during a trial exhibit stickers must be placed on everything that is going to be entered as evidence. Otherwise, files can remain electronic through the investigative process except when meta data is crucial as part of the investigation.

Forensic experts know that sending audio or video digital files electronically over the Internet can often strip meta data off of original recordings inhibiting the forensic expert’s identification.

Either way, the purpose of the message I am trying to convey in this blog post is the importance of returning or destroying all evidence and work product after a case is determined or a settlement is reached. This is a practice that is not talked about enough in the forensic community and is extremely important for all forensic experts – audio, video or otherwise – to keep in mind.

Forensic Tools: Keep It Basic While Keeping Up-To-Date

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

223338_2419-1024x768 Forensic Tools: Keep It Basic While Keeping Up-To-DateAs a video forensic expert, I am very aware of the many software tools that are available for examining and authenticating video evidence which will be used in litigation. Some of the software is extremely advanced and requires a thorough understanding of technology in order to be able to use these tools. They’re great, and many of them perform tasks that were never possible before in the video forensic community. However, I keep my eye on the simplicity of my results and conclusions when testifying in court. There’s one thing judges and juries don’t need, and that is a complicated conclusion from a forensic expert. Based on my 28+ years working as an audio and video forensic expert, I understand how important it is to keep my findings simple and to the point when testifying in court. I think it’s a big mistake for forensic experts to use complicated reports and test results in court that judges and juries don’t understand. They need to know, based on your experience, what your opinion is in regard to the evidence in question, and that’s it —they do not need to know how detailed the investigation was that you conducted. Instead, briefly discuss in your report the processes and procedures that you used to arrive at your conclusions. Judges and juries just want to know, “Was the video edited?” “Is the video authentic?” “Can you identify the people and the characters in the video?” “Are you working for the defense or are you working for the prosecution?” Either way, your report will exemplify your experience, credibility and ability to arrive at a conclusion and be able to support that conclusion during cross examination.

So going forward, I will continue to learn about all of the software tools that are available to me as a video forensic expert, but will also take into account the necessity of keeping my findings simple. I believe these forensic tools will help me do a better job going forward as I determine which ones to bring into our lab and which ones to avoid. Knowing the basics, the basic tools and the way they operate is critical as closed-circuit television footage and body camera recordings become more prominent in litigation. Keeping up with technology is one of the most important tasks of the video forensic expert and it’s gaining an increasing focus from the forensic field.

Description: Video forensic experts need to keep up with technology while keeping the descriptions of their findings simple.

Best Practices for Digital Video Evidence

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

digital-video-1024x768 Best Practices for Digital Video EvidenceOne of the day to day activities of a video forensic expert is to determine if a digital video recording is an exact representation of the facts as they occurred at the time of the recording. In order to do this, the video expert must know how the digital video recording was created. There is a series of best practices for digital video evidence that is followed in the forensic lab.

For example, was the video recorded on a closed circuit television system? Who was responsible for exporting the copy that has been provided for examination? This is a particularly important question because the integrity of that copy is proportionate to the experience of the person who removed it from that closed circuit television system.

If the video evidence is on a portable media device, such as a CD-ROM disc, a DVD-ROM disc or an external hard drive or thumb drive, then we know beyond a reasonable degree of certainty that that digital video was removed from the original security surveillance system or digital video recorder (DVR). It’s not a problem working from a copy as long as both sides in the litigation understand and agree to the authenticity of that copy. However, whenever there is a doubt as to the authenticity of that digital video on that external media, then the original digital video recording must be examined in its native environment, which is the original digital video recorder that is part of the closed circuit television system.

When an export copy video from a closed circuit television system is used in courts without debate, both sides in the litigation agreed that this export copy  is an actual representation of the facts as they occurred. Because of this, there was no dispute as to whether or not it was an original because it didn’t matter. The digital format, when cloning, is technically all considered “originals” because of the digital formatting. In other words, it’s all “Xs and Os” and meta data that has been transferred from a digital video recorder or computer hard drive. Just like when making copies of a compact disc for a friend, the copy, if done properly, sounds just as good as the original. But I digress. When there’s a dispute over the contents of an exported digital video recording and the original has to be sought to approve and display the facts as they occurred, the video forensic expert’s job is now to go back to the source that created the digital video recording and obtain a copy of it through supervised procedures of exporting. That way the forensic expert and both parties in the litigation have no dispute as to whether or not that digital video recording is authentic and true.

Oftentimes the original video recording is no longer available because of the time that it takes for cases to rotate in court. As a forensic video expert I often receive evidence copies for authentication, examination, clarification and restoration up to a year—and even two years—after they were recorded. When there’s doubt to the integrity of this video evidence and the original is no longer available because of the “first in, first out” operation of closed circuit television systems, then it’s the forensic video expert’s job to find clues within that digital video recording to help process the litigation.

When working in a Windows-based PC forensic laboratory, I have discovered that some of the closed circuit television exports do not play properly, if at all, on the Windows 7 operating system. This is why we have older versions of Windows operating systems in our laboratory. It’s a best practice of a forensic expert to be prepared for any situation in order to conduct a proper video forensic investigation.

Occasionally the forensic video expert must use screen capture technology in order to retain a portion of the closed circuit television recording for clarification purposes. Recording a portion of the closed circuit television video using screen capture technology allows me to create a file format that is suitable for forensic investigation. Closed circuit television systems record video using a proprietary format that is native to the original operating system of the digital video recorder. This is why the footage is considered secure, and authentic—because it was recorded in an “armored car” environment. This security often interferes with a video forensic investigation because, depending on the source of the copy that has been given to the forensic examiner, the proper CODECS may not be available to the forensic expert in order to view that surveillance footage. Therefore, one of the first activities that a forensic expert does in that situation is to try to find the CODECS proprietary to that surveillance system in order to get one of the Windows operating systems to play that video footage for examination. Once the video forensic expert plays and views the original footage using the proper CODEC, a screen capture software program is used to create a new file of that surveillance video. Once that new video footage has been created, the digital video is then imported into a forensic video software program for investigation, authentication, clarification, restoration or any other activity necessary to help process the litigation. Of course, the forensic video expert records their process, which is accepted in the scientific community and aids the forensic video expert in compiling a report at the conclusion of their investigation.

All of these activities are best practices of a forensic video expert. With technology changing faster than ever, it is the forensic video expert’s job to be able to know where to go to find answers to difficult situations caused by lack of understanding of the originator of the video evidence. Sometimes security personnel who export the original video evidence from the closed circuit television system are not aware of the fact that in order to view that digital footage, the player or the software must be embedded on the media where the file is being transferred to. Instead, security personnel sometimes just export one of the digital video files from the closed circuit television system without realizing a specific CODEC is necessary for future viewing of that footage.

As a scientific community we are always learning additional best practices for examining digital media evidence. I welcome any feedback or communication from anyone who reads this post and has a comment about any of their best practices experiences or anything that has been written in this blog post.

What Makes a Great Expert Witness?

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

expert-witness-1024x685 What Makes a Great Expert Witness?For many years I have been working on, investigating and testifying in video forensic cases around the world. As a result, I’ve come up with a list of qualities that I believe all great expert witnesses must possess.

Obviously, a great expert must be an expert or have a lot of experience in their area of expertise. My career in video started back in high school when I was selected by the TV department to be the custodian, if you will, of all of the television systems within our high school. And back then half-inch recording tape was on an open reel – they hadn’t even invented VHS cassette tapes yet. That tells you how long ago that was!

The second quality that a great expert witness must possess is character. If you have the right character and the right personality, then you will always be respected and trusted by litigators, judges and juries. I believe integrity is one of the most important qualities that any successful expert witness should possess because it’s that character that earns you respect as an expert witness.

The next quality that I believe an expert witness should have is confidence. When you get on the stand to testify, the first litigator that starts to ask questions is usually the person that you’re working for, so you go right down the line of your expertise to be entered as an expert witness into that litigation, in that court and qualified as an expert witness. Then you answer the questions of what you were asked to do, what you did, how you did it and the types of things that are accepted in the scientific community to help qualify your opinion. Then, of course, you end with your opinion. Then the opposing counsel gets up and starts to cross-examine. That’s when your confidence really needs to shine because that opposing counsel will do the best that they can to create doubt about your qualifications as an expert and to make you look less confident. Sometimes that nervous energy that you can feel during that cross examination can help break down your confidence, and that will diminish your character and cause the jury and the judge to start to doubt your ability. It’s very import to concentrate on your confidence and stay in that “confident zone” especially when you are on the stand, as well as during every conversation with all litigators prior to testifying.

Another quality I believe an expert witness must possess is the mastery of dialogue: the ability to speak with a good vocabulary and to know the words you should use when you’re delivering on the stand under oath. One of the things that I’ve learned over the years—after testifying dozens of times all over the country—is to take pauses as you’re gathering your next thought. When you’re nervous it’s human nature to stutter or say “um” between words. However, you will come across as much more of a professional if you pause instead of saying superfluous words like “um” or “uh,” and take your time when answering the question. And if you don’t understand the question, don’t try to talk just to talk. Ask the litigator to repeat the question to you so that you can completely understand what they’re asking and know how to answer it using the best dialogue possible.

The last quality I believe a great expert witness should possess is the ability to know when to talk and when to listen. Oftentimes during heated discussions – which often happens on the stand – the expert witness could get their adrenalin accelerated because of the cross examination. During that rapid-fire dialogue it’s best to just relax and let the litigator vent or finish their accelerated questioning. I often will wait and count to five after the litigator is done talking before I say anything, because that allows the energy in the courtroom to dissipate a little bit before you calmly answer the question, or say the next thing that you’re about to say. If you start to step on words you continue to increase the anxiety and the aggravation within the litigator and that dialogue exchange does not come across as professional. As an expert witness, you should always come across as professional, especially when you’re on the stand testifying.

I’d like any expert witnesses who read this blog post to share some other qualities and character traits that they feel expert witnesses should possess. You can tweet me at Ed_Primeau, or you can comment at the end of this blog post. I’d love to hear from you.

3 Tips for Preparing Video Evidence for Court

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

courtroom-1024x682 3 Tips for Preparing Video Evidence for CourtOver the last 28 years I have worked on many video forensic cases as a video forensic expert. This blog post is about the top three things I have learned and want to share with you about preparing your video evidence for use in court.
Number one: document and maintain a chain of custody on the video evidence.  Too often there is no chain of custody maintained on video evidence. The lack of a chain of custody makes it hard for all parties in any litigation to understand the purpose and authenticity of the video evidence.

Number two: always use the original digital video file for any litigation. If you are not sure if it’s the original or if you believe it has been altered, then it is not considered the original and you must go back to the source that recorded the footage in order to confirm.  Bottom line: if both parties in the litigation agree on the video evidence and consider it original, you are okay.  Only when there is a disagreement should you go back to the recording source and compare that recording to the video evidence.

Number three: make sure your video plays on the equipment that is used in the court. Many attorneys will enter a court room with a piece of video evidence and not realize that the court is not equipped to play the type of digital video file that the evidence has been presented in. It never hurts to rehearse your presentation of the video evidence before it is finally presented in court. Will the jury be able to hear the audio?  Do you need a PA speaker and amplifier to make the audio louder for everyone in court to hear?

There are many other factors to consider when using your video evidence in litigation, but these are the top three in my opinion.  Ask a video forensic expert for help because your evidence can be removed from your case if it is not prepared and presented properly or if there is doubt on the authenticity.

photo credit: St Georges Hall Court Room via photopin (license)

Cloud Storage for Evidence Sharing

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Cloud-Storage-1024x768 Cloud Storage for Evidence SharingAbout a week ago I was called by Wired Magazine and interviewed about cloud storage for evidence sharing. My first thought was that cloud storage is a great technological advance and is very convenient for the courts, police and lawyers who all need copies of audio and video forensic evidence.  Then I thought about the chain of custody problem.

I have found that courts and litigators still take audio and video evidence lightly depending on who is presenting the evidence. When authenticated by a forensic expert, audio and video evidence can be a very important tool in the court room.

I have experienced incredible turn around decisions when video evidence is shown in court to a jury.  Video is like bringing the scene of the crime into the court room.  Of course this works for both defense and prosecution in criminal cases as well as civil cases.

It is a hassle for some courts and police departments to authenticate audio and video forensic evidence as well as to maintain a chain of custody.  There is one big problem with cloud storage and audio and video evidence: maintaining a chain of custody of any evidence uploaded and downloaded to and from any type of cloud storage.

On the other hand, I can see benefits to having the evidence available 24|7 for all persons involved in the litigation. A formal procedure will have to be established in order to make cloud sharing of audio and video evidence available.

For example, if the prosecution and defense were each issued a user name and password, the cloud storage service could monitor access as well as maintain the integrity of the original audio or video evidence.  This would be fairly simple since most audio and video evidence is in digital form.

It all boils down to both sides agreeing on the identity of the original.  If the original is not disputed and can be shared and tracked in a cloud storage environment, then cloud sharing of audio and video evidence can work.  Once a dispute arises then the cloud storage environment will face forensic investigation to determine proper chain of custody.

 

 

 

photo credit: Dropbox via photopin (license)

Video is Everywhere: Mind Your Manners in Public

Friday, February 24th, 2012

5610631522_53319bb4fe_o-1024x681 Video is Everywhere: Mind Your Manners in PublicI recently had a video forensic case that involved a dispute between an employer and a former employee. It was a disability case where the employee was collecting disability that they were not entitled to.

The employer’s insurance company hired a private investigator to follow the former employee and catch them on video doing activity that they claimed they could not do. During a deposition the former employee demonstrated how they had a very hard time getting up from a chair and walking across the room.

A few days before the deposition and a few days after the deposition the former employee was caught on video moving in ways they testified they could not during their deposition.

You would think that if a person is going to lie about how they are disabled they would be more careful in public to not act differently, especially with the risk of being caught on video.

We live in an extremely litigious society and many people are looking for an easy way out. An accident occurs at work and they leverage the accident to benefit their financial future. We have all seen the TV shows that catch these people spilling water on the floor then pretending to slip and fall in order to be able to file a law suit designed to compensate them so they have some financial security.

Then there are criminals, many of whom are addicted to drugs, who rob gas stations and convenience stores without considering that there may be video cameras and recorders on the property that can later identify them.

Regardless of your thought process when committing a crime or having fun in public, remember that you are more than likely almost always being recorded on camera. It’s worse to be caught in a lie on video than to be honest and live your life as intended. Money is the root of all evil and a powerful motivator.

I have seen it all after 28 years as a video forensic expert. Children being assaulted and abused, robberies and even murder all caught on video. I have testified in all types of cases that involve video evidence and the purpose of these videos is genuine. Video does not lie and eventually the truth does come out in litigation.

photo credit: big brother via photopin (license)

Video Forensic Expert Edward J Primeau Curriculum Vitae

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