June 28th, 2014 | by KATE WILLSON News | Posted In: Cops and Courts, Media, PDX News, Tech

New Yorker and The Washington Post Look at Portland Woman's Case and the Problems of Questionable Cell Tower Evidence

140606_lisa_roberts_213_hrLisa Roberts was freed last month after a federal judge ordered the state either let her out of prison or put her on trial. - Anna M. Campbell Photography

The Washington Post and The New Yorker published stories Friday that highlight the problems of using cellphone data against criminal suspects, and each highlighted the case of a Portland woman whose murder conviction was recently dismissed.

WW on June 11 published the story of Lisa Marie Roberts, who saw a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge dismissed the charges against her earlier this month after a federal judge ordered the state to either let her go or try her. The federal judge ruled the original defense attorney for Roberts, who spent 12 years in prison after a plea bargain, failed to challenge prosecutors' 2004 claims about cellphone data that supposedly put her near the scene where the victim's body had been dumped.

"The use of cellphone records to place suspects at or near crime scenes is coming under attack in courts nationwide," Tom Jackman of the Post writes, "challenging an established practice by federal and local law enforcement that has helped lead to thousands of convictions."

Roberts' attorney never challenged those assertions. Instead he encouraged her to plead guilty on the spot and avoid a potential life sentence.  

“Experts say that using a single tower to precisely locate where someone was at the time of a crime has severe limitations. And while defense lawyers are gradually recognizing the problems with such evidence, the FBI continues to rely heavily on the data in its investigations,” The Post's story adds. “The agency wants to expand its full-time team of 32 agents dedicated to the analysis of cell site data, and it has trained more than 5,000 state and local police investigators in the basic methodology." 

State and federal agencies across the country filed more than 1.1 million requests people's cellphone data in 2012, the Post reports.

The New Yorker, in also highlighting Roberts' case, says the Portland case is only one of many cases where law enforcement built a case based on what experts say is increasingly shaky evidence.

The magazine quotes Michael Cherry, the C.E.O. of Cherry Biometrics, a consulting firm in Falls Church, Va., who worked on the Roberts' case. (He was also quoted in the Post.)

"We think the whole paradigm is absolutely flawed at every level, and shouldn’t be used in the courtroom,” Cherry says. “This whole thing is junk science, a farce.”

 
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