Basu videotape spies the future in gasping irony

DAN RODRICKS

April 22, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

The Rodney King case demonstrated how one man, a video vigilante, could pick up a camera and create an emotional, political, legal and racial monsoon. Now, into the video age comes the Pam Basu murder. The case is startling and emotionally shattering for many reasons, including the fact it involved the trend crime of carjacking. But consider another novel element: The family video as evidence.

The Basu video, shown to a Howard County jury yesterday, is altogether extraordinary, on the edge of the surreal and grotesque. The irony of its creation is awesome.

Here we had the husband of the victim recording an ordinary event in the life of his family -- his 22-month-old daughter's departure for her first day of preschool -- but recording, in the process, the likenesses of two young men accused of killing his wife a few minutes after the video was made.

The tape was presented by Robert Keller, a specialist in the new and growing field of "forensic video."

Videotapes have, of course, been used as evidence before -- in bank robberies and shoplifting cases, in particular.

There are thousands of surveillance cameras positioned throughout the United States to record millions of Americans in banks, stores, office buildings, even schools. Add to that the thousands of cameras used by private investigators and police. Add to that the millions of cameras purchased for home use. That's a constellation of lenses with the potential of recording not just the bright moments of life but the dark side as well.

In fact, Keller, the forensic video specialist, was unwittingly ironic when he spoke of his efforts to prepare the Basu video for court. "The original," he said, "was a little on the dark side."

Viewed in court, the scene in front of the Basu home seems to be cut in two: Pam Basu and Sarina on the bottom of the screen; two young men, apparently the suspects, in the top half, stepping into the tranquillity, invading it.

On the video monitor, we see Pam Basu in a flowered blouse, pink slacks and white shoes. At first, her back is to the camera. She strolls down a walk to the sidewalk in front of her house, turning momentarily to her left to look at Sarina.

The girl, dressed in a bright summer suit, has shiny dark hair. She bounces along the walk behind her mother. Then she runs onto grass, stops, turns and looks for a moment at the camera. Then she waves and we hear her voice. Her mother smiles. Off to the right somewhere a car engine starts.

Pam Basu opens the passenger door of a tan BMW that is facing the camera, parked at the curb of the sidewalk. The little girl hesitates. She tries to bounce and keep her balance on the curb by the car. You can hear a bird -- I recognized it as a mockingbird -- singing somewhere. The mother waits patiently at the car door, says something, then leans over to pick up the little girl.

That's when you see the first hightop sneaker.

It enters the video screen from the top left corner. Soon you see a thin man wearing hightops and baggy shorts. He is walking. Remarkably, his shirt, possibly a dark T-shirt, has been pulled up and around his neck, and the man actually lifts the garment to hide his face. He turns away from the camera. As he walks, he looks over his left shoulder toward a second young man who enters the shot.

The second one wears an oversized white T-shirt, dark blue or purple sweat pants and sneakers. He darts to the sidewalk at the top of the screen and resumes walking at a cool pace. His head is titled upward. He looks forward as he walks. In a grainy splash on the video, one of his sneakers seems to step on Pam Basu's head at the bottom of the screen.

Is he Bernard Miller, the 17-year-old defendant? A still enlargement from the videotape comes close to being conclusive. Considering the shape of his head and his manner of walking, the second young man in the video could be the same young man who sits impassively, day after day, at the defense table in Ellicott City.

The way the first man in the picture hid his face, one is tempted to speculate. Had Steve Basu not been there with his camera -- had he not been noticed by the men on the tape -- the crime against his wife might have occurred right there, right in front of their home, instead of minutes later down the street.

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