EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland Affirms Woodlawn Murder Conviction Despite Detective Misstating His Cell Tower Ping Expert Experience

Today, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland issued its opinion in Brown v. State, which involved a murder that took place in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Baltimore County. The case also involved cell tower pings, and a detective misstating his experience as an expert witness on the topic.

In Brown, Antonio Anderson was fatally shot after exiting an apartment complex in the 6800 block of Townbrook Drive in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Baltimore County.

Although [Antonio] Brown denied being in the area of the shooting on the night when it occurred, his cell phone “pinged” off three cell phone towers within two miles of the crime scene near the time of the shooting.

At trial, 

The State called two witnesses to testify about Brown’s cell phone records and the location of his cell phone at approximately the time of the shooting: Gary Schaffer, a radio frequency engineer with 23 years’ experience working for AT&T,[*] Brown’s cell phone carrier; and Baltimore County Police Detective Eric Dunton.


testified that he had prepared a map, State’s Exhibit 63, which indicated the location of the cell phone towers in the area of the shooting. He agreed that his map was “very similar” to State’s Exhibit 64, a map prepared for the State by Detective Dunton. In Schaffer’s expert opinion, a comparison of the two maps, along with the call records detailing Brown’s cell phone activity, showed that Brown’s calls near the time of the shooting had “pinged” from the cell phone towers shown on Schaffer’s map.


Detective Dunton testified that during his investigation he looked at cell- phone detail records attributed to Brown from near the time of the shooting. Using those records, he plotted the calls onto the map that became State’s Exhibit 64. In response to a question about his “specialized training, or experience, or any kind of knowledge that allows [him] to map cell phone calls . . . onto a map,” Detective Dunton stated he had “been to three separate schools for a total of 70 hours in reference to the call analysis through call detail records and the mapping of the cell towers associated with those records,” and that he had “hundreds” of hours of on-the-job training doing so. When asked if he had testified as an expert in making maps with respect to cell-phone detail records, Detective Dunton answered affirmatively, stating that he had been qualified as an expert “[t]hree to five times.”

The next day, the prosecutor told the judge that Detective Dunton had

sought her out to clarify that he had not understood that designation as an expert is a legal term of art. In fact, although he had testified on the subject of cell phone mapping on three or four prior occasions, he explained to the prosecutor that this trial was the first in which he had been officially designated an expert by a court.

The State then offered two solutions endorsed by the judge:

[T]he State offered to recall Detective Dunton and permit defense counsel to cross-examine him about his qualifications. Alternatively, the State offered to prepare a stipulation that the detective had testified three to five times related to his expertise in map-making and cell phone technology, but that Brown’s case was the first in which the State had requested that he be recognized as an expert.

The defense countered that the damage had been done and that the bell couldn't be unrung; accordingly, it moved for a mistrial.

The trial judge denied the defense motion, and the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland agreed for three reasons:

First, as the trial court explained, Detective Dunton’s misstatement stemmed from an honest mistake about a matter of legal terminology – a subject in which only lawyers and judges are expert....Second, the prosecutor pointed out, and the court agreed, that Detective Dunton’s testimony was, in large part, cumulative of that of Schaffer, whose status as an expert was unchallenged by Brown....Third and finally, the trial court offered Brown the reasonable remedy of either recalling Detective Dunton as a witness to expose his error or entering a stipulation detailing the error.

This seems like the correct outcome, but you have to wonder what would have happened if Detective Dunton was the only "expert" witness in the case.



*I wonder why the State didn't call Schaffer in the reopened PCR proceedings in the Adnan Syed case.



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Too bad Mr. Brown didn't have better counsel representing him. Seems like a sharper attorney could/would have more aggressively questioned that cell tower evidence.

Posted by: Patrick B. | Apr 27, 2016 1:06:15 PM

Regardless, the same junk science undergirds the AT&T expert and Dunton's. The state wouldn't be able to produce a scientific study showing the validity of their theories about historical cell site data (none exist), and the odds are the exhibits suffer from the same flaws as those in Syed's case: none of them show the full coverages of the relevant cell towers.

One difference here from Syed's case is there are (according to the article) three pings. If these are close in time and the towers are on significantly different azimuths from the location of the crime, triangulation might come into play.

Dollars to donuts the prosecutors description of a "very concerned and earnest" Det. Dutton is a lie.

Posted by: bacchys | Apr 28, 2016 9:27:30 AM

How have we come to the place where it's OK for law-enforcement to blatantly lie in court? It seems as if it's become commonplace anymore and the courts just don't seem to care. As long as someone, anyone, gets sent to prison, everyone seems fine with it. WTH??

Posted by: Eric Wolff | Apr 29, 2016 3:45:37 AM

Eric, we've been at that place where it's OK for law enforcement to blatantly lie in courts for a long time now.

Posted by: bacchys | May 2, 2016 8:13:17 AM

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