Fitbit Data Used As Evidence In A New Murder Case
Wearable devices are becoming incredibly common. Take a look around - you’ll notice Fitbits, Apple Watches, and other wearable devices on the wrists of many people whom you encounter on a daily basis, including your legal colleagues and co-workers. They’re being used to track people’s health and fitness information, to ensure people are notified of important messages and events, and to assist with navigation, among other things.
Because they track so many aspects of our lives, the data collected and stored on the devices and shared with our phones can sometimes prove invaluable in court. I find their evidentiary potential to be incredibly interesting, so I started following and writing about cases where data from wearable devices has been used as evidence in litigation. For example, in 2015, I wrote about two cases where Fitbit data was used in litigation: one where it was offered as evidence to support a personal injury claim and the other where it was used to disprove a complainant’s rape allegations.
Then in 2017, I covered a case where Fitbit data and other digital evidence was used to support a Connecticut murder prosecution. The digital evidence included cellphone records for the defendant and his wife, 2) computer records from the defendant’s laptop, 3) Facebook records for the defendant, his wife, and his girlfriend, 4) text messages, and 5) Fitbit records for the victim, the defendant’s wife.
Now, there’s a new case where Fitbit data is being used in a murder prosecution, this time in California. In this case, the accused is the step-father of the victim. The victim was discovered in her home on Thursday, September 13th by a coworker after she failed to show up for her job. She was deceased, slumped over a desk, and was wearing a Fitbit while holding a butcher knife. She had sustained a deep cut to her neck. What initially appeared to be a suicide was later determined to be a homicide after the medical examiner determined that she’d suffered from many deep wounds to her head and face.
When questioned by police, her step-father informed them that he had stopped by her home on Saturday, September 8th to drop off pizza. He also stated that later in the day he saw her again when she drove by his home with someone in the passenger seat of her car. He denied harming her.
However, evidence obtained by the investigating officers conflicted with his account. First, there was surveillance video showing that his car had been at her home for 21 minutes on Saturday, September 8th, from 3:12 - 3:33 pm. The video did not show her driving from her home in her car subsequent to that point in time, despite the defendant’s claims to the contrary.
There was also digital data obtained from the victim’s Fitbit. It showed that her heart rate spiked at 3:20 p.m. on September 8th. It then slowed down quickly and her Fitbit stopped registering a heartbeat at 3:28 p.m. In other words, her Fitbit showed that her heart had stopped beating during the timeframe that the defendant’s car was at her home.
Based on the surveillance video and Fitbit evidence, and his conflicting account, he was arrested and charged with her murder. The case is still pending, so his ultimate fate remains unknown. But it’s a great example of the valuable evidence that can be obtained from wearables. While certainly not conclusive, when considered in conjunction with other evidence discovered throughout an investigation, this type of data can sometimes make - or break - a case. Tune in next week for an example of a case where, instead of making the prosecution’s case, wearable data instead provided the accused with a viable alibi.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase law practice management software. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.