The verdict is in

Our view: The high-tech crime-fighting gadgetry highlighted by the trial of Lamont Davis too often fails to perform nearly as well as advertised

April 19, 2010

No one thought the Baltimore jury that convicted 18-year-old Lamont Davis on Thursday of attempted murder in last summer's shooting of Raven Wyatt, then 5 years old, would have an easy time of it. Recalcitrant witnesses offered conflicting versions of events, changed their stories on the stand or refused to testify at all. The jury never learned of the defendant's previous criminal record or that he was already under home detention on charges of robbing and assaulting another teen when the shootings occurred. That authorities were able to win guilty verdicts — second-degree attempted murder for Raven Wyatt, first-degree attempted murder for Tradon Hicks, the intended target of the attack, and related handgun charges — was a testimony to the dogged investigative work and excellent cooperation by police and prosecutors and the the courage of jurors determined to take back their streets from violent felons.

Aside from the outrage at an innocent child being shot in the head during an outbreak of senseless violence, the case also threw a spotlight on serious deficiencies in the high-tech monitoring devices authorities rely on to deter criminals and to aid in investigating and solving crimes. Prosecutors presented evidence gathered from both a pole-mounted surveillance camera that snapped images of the shooting in progress and from the GPS ankle bracelet the defendant was required to wear while under home detention. But this was hardly an episode of "CSI: Baltimore."

Footage from the surveillance camera, which was screened in court and which thousands more viewers saw broadcast on television or over the Internet, didn't reveal the kind of crisp, clear images that would have instantly identified Raven Wyatt's attacker. That allowed the defense to claim that the man shown firing a handgun while pursuing another youth through the street was a different person than the defendant. Even the computer-enhanced version of the tape viewed by jurors was in no way comparable to the space-age satellite cameras of the military, which reportedly can read a license plate from 100 miles up. The police camera couldn't so much as read a face from 100 feet away — even though Baltimore City has poured more than $15 million into such devices since 2004.

Even more unsettling was the dismal performance of the GPS monitoring system that was supposed to keep track of Mr. Davis' movements by means of an ankle bracelet strapped to his leg. During his trial it came out that the system couldn't tell where he was if he stepped more than a few feet away from the transponder installed in his apartment — the unit relays signals from the bracelet in much the same way the base unit of a cordless phone relays calls. Furthermore, the company that monitored his movements was located in Nebraska and wasn't even legally required to alert officials here when a detainee it was tracking went "off the grid." Mr. Davis, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, violated his detention so often, according to testimony at trial, that for substantial periods last summer, neither the police, nor prosecutors nor the state Department of Juvenile Services — which was supposed to be supervising his detention — had any idea where he was. For all they knew, he could have been a few feet or a few hundred miles from his apartment.

When it was introduced, the GPS monitoring system was hailed as a technological breakthrough that would allow juvenile offenders to safely remain in their communities while awaiting disposition of their cases. But the $3 million gamble strapped to Mr. Davis' ankle proved utterly incapable of protecting the community from him. Not only that, but it wasn't even able to provide evidence that jurors found compelling about Mr. Davis' location during the shooting rampage. DJS needs to take a hard look at when and how such devices should be used in the future; obviously the safeguards the system was intended to provide were no substitute for 24-hour supervision in a secure facility for high-risk offenders like Mr. Davis, who never should have been allowed back on the streets in the first place.

Similarly, the Baltimore City Police Department ought to thoroughly review the effectiveness of its system of surveillance cameras around the city, which cost some $1.2 million a year to operate. The cameras clearly have a role to play in crime prevention, intervention and investigations, but they surely are not the panacea the public thinks they are. Some cameras work better than others. Some are regularly monitored, while some are left to operate automatically, and the quality of the imagery varies widely. With tight budgets and looming cuts in police and fire services, the city needs to make sure it's getting its money's worth from its high-tech gadgetry. At the very least, they ought to be able to provide convincing evidence when a crime takes place right in front of them.

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