Tuesday, September 1, 2015
Today, Rabia Chaudry, Susan Simpson, and I appeared on The Docket with Seema Iyer. The full episode can be accessed by clicking on this link. Part of our discussion focused on the video taken of the "broken" windshield wiper lever in Hae Min Lee's Nissan Sentra. The background for that video can be found in this post. That post, of course, was written before we had the video. Now, we do. So, what does it show us?
We know that the Sentra was released from police custody on March 7, 1999. From there, it was apparently taken to a body shop owned by Hae's uncle. Because it was clear that photographs taken of the car on February 28, 1999 did not show a broken lever, detectives went to the body shop on March 16, 1999 to record a demonstration. If the car were inside and secure, the State might have had an argument that the video should have been admissible despite the obvious chain of custody issues.
The video, however, reveals two things. First, the Sentra was sitting outside, exposed to the conditions (such as snow):
Second, the Sentra was apparently unlocked:
In the video, one of the detectives -- presumably Detective Hastings -- simply walks up to the Sentra and opens the driver side door. The Sentra is only "secured" through a Club or similar device on the steering wheel.
These two facts make it clear that the video should have been inadmissible due to chain of custody issues. You can contrast what was done in this case to the procedure followed in State v. Moves Camp, 286 N.W.2d 333, 338 (S.D. 1979), which I've previously cited:
The blue Ford in question was taken to the garage at the Pennington County jail. The car was sealed with evidence tape and locked behind doors with electric locks. Deputy Pesecka personally observed all of this. The car was transported to Kadoka by one Mr. Wilcox who testified that the tape had been temporarily removed to prepare the automobile for towing, that it was resealed before towing, and that it was driven directly to and locked within the Jackson County garage in Kadoka. These procedures satisfy us that a prima facie showing has been made that the objects were properly identified and in the same condition as when the car was taken into custody.
The problem in this case is that someone could have "tampered" with the steering column between March 7th and March 16th. Given that the Sentra was taken to a body shop, the "tampering" in question likely would have been someone working on the steering column...which someone clearly did.
I've noted before that the ignition collar was missing from the Sentra when it was found on February 28, 1999, which implies that someone had tried to hotwire the car. Here is a photo from February 28th showing the missing ignition collar:
Fast forward to the March 16th video, and it's clear that the ignition collar (right next to the windshield wiper lever) has been replaced:
The other thing you might notice from this screenshot and the video from the episode (starting at about the 42 minute mark) is that the windshield wiper lever is multichromatic and/or that part of its casing is missing. Or you might conclude that this is simply an optical illusion based upon the way that the sun is striking it.
If it's the former, this would be in contrast to what is seen in the prior photograph, which is the black windshield wiper lever for a 1998 Nissan Sentra:
Does this mean that the windshield wiper lever had been altered or changed before the video was taken? Alternatively, is this just a shadow from the sun? I'm perfectly willing to accept that I could be wrong on this one. Maybe a video expert could answer it
What we do know is that the Sentra was outside, unlocked, and in the snow, with someone placing a Club on the steering wheel and replacing the ignition collar.* Given all of this, the video shouldn't have been given any legal or factual weight.
*We also know that Jay and Detective Forrester both alternatively claimed that the broken lever was on the right and left of the steering column and that Hae's brother has said that it was the turn signal lever (on the left of the steering column) that was broken.