The Albany Police Department set precedent in 2012 when it became the state’s first police agency outside of New York City and Long Island to invest in high-definition 3D laser scanning technology for the documentation of homicide and fatal crash scenes. The transition from total station to laser scanner has made a significant impact on the team’s productivity, performance and work products. This year, the Albany Police Department set precedent once again. “I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to have the scan data, in the form a Leica TruView, admitted into court here in Albany County prior to my retirement,” said Victor Pizzola, who now works as a criminal investigator for the Albany County District Attorney’s Office. “This was a first for the county and for our agency.”
Building the Case
The precedent-setting case began the morning of December 23, 2013, when Pizzola, then a detective with the Albany Police Department Forensic Scan Team, was deployed to a crime scene near downtown Albany. The murder victim, 37-year-old Sylvester Scott, had been fatally shot outside his residence.
Pizzola and his team documented the scene with the Leica ScanStation, and evidence was recovered, including seven expended shell casings. As part of the forensic scanning of this scene, Pizzola placed and scanned trajectory rods, which enabled him to later reconstruct the trajectories for bullet-path reconstruction within Leica Cyclone 3D point cloud processing software. “We were able to utilize trajectories to get directionality because it was a drive-by shooting and some of the bullets struck certain items from one direction and some of the bullets from another direction,” Pizzola explained. “So we were able to say that we believed there was shooting as the vehicle was moving, a theory that was supported by the cartridge casings left at the scene.”
The following year, in June 2014, police arrested two men, Russel Palmer and his nephew Kareem Murray, for the murder of Scott, whom they incorrectly believed had raped and robbed Murray’s girlfriend. Once the investigation was complete, the case files, including a Leica TruView 3D scene visualization and Cyclone images, were delivered to the Albany County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Featuring a simple panoramic bubble-view approach, the free Leica TruView allows viewers to see, zoom in, or pan over images on a computer screen just as if they were standing where the laser scanner captured the scan data. “With the ability to go back into the scan data several times throughout the course of the investigation to confirm theories, we were able to create a pretty decent representation of what we believed happened,” Pizzola said.
Overcoming the challenge
When the case came to trial in May 2015, the DA’s office submitted the Leica TruView for consideration by the court. The 3D visualization software is a powerful way to communicate what the crime scene looked like. Once admitted, the TruView, which featured embedded crime scene photography and hotlinks to other digital evidence, would enable the jury to virtually visit the as-discovered scene to better understand the events that occurred nearly 17 months earlier.
Neither the prosecuting attorney nor Pizzola was surprised that the defense challenged the laser scan data. “Any time you get something new, the defense attorneys are going to object,” Pizzola said. While Leica ScanStation data had already been admitted as scientific evidence in several courts around the United States, this case marked the initial attempt in Albany County. “The City of Albany Police Department was the first agency north of New York City to have this equipment,” Pizzola explained. “Defense attorneys don’t know the science yet, so they’re just trying to basically say it’s not an established science and it shouldn’t be entered into court.”
It’s a scenario Pizzola has seen work itself out several times over the course of his career. “Just 25 years ago, it’s what we had to do with radar guns for speed trials,” he said. “Now when we have a trial with radar, we get a conviction because the science is now founded and accepted.” It’s the same with laser scanning technology. “The more it starts to come into court,” he said, “the more it will be accepted.”
The prosecutor and Pizzola were prepared to demonstrate that the Albany Police Department’s Leica ScanStation met the Frye Standard for scientific evidence. “We had to establish that the instrument was calibrated, which was done by submitting the calibration records and the service records for the instrument, which we keep on file,” Pizzola said. “Then I had to lay the foundation for my training and for the science of the instrument.”
To support the Albany Police Department, Leica Geosystems had an expert on hand to testify. Frank Hahnel, U.S. East account manager for Leica Geosystems’ Public Safety Group, flew to Albany to take the stand if Pizzola was unable to lay the proper foundation for the ScanStation. “This was just another shining example of how Leica Geosystems takes care of its partners in law enforcement,” Pizzola said.
It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution. While the ScanStation is a highly advanced and complex scientific instrument, Pizzola kept his explanation uncomplicated. “I just brought it down to a level that everybody could understand,” he said. “Basically, I said it’s survey equipment that has been repurposed to map crime scenes. I told them that it creates a point cloud, which is nothing more than a whole bunch of dots at a certain location in space on an XYZ coordinate. The judge and jury understood that.”
A New Precedent
With the foundation laid, the judge admitted the Leica ScanStation data as scientific evidence, and Pizzola testified. “We used the TruView with the trajectory rods to show just directionality,” Pizzola said, “and then I was able to testify about where the projectile strikes were coming from.”
The precedent-setting ruling was not only a success for the Albany Police Department but also for the prosecutors. “It was a victory for us that we got it in the first time,” Pizzola said. “It was a victory, as well, for the D.A.’s office, which was able to say that this Leica ScanStation technology helped in the prosecution of a homicide in the city of Albany.”
In the end, the jury found the two defendants guilty of murder in the second degree, among other counts, and they were sentenced to 25 years to life. “We believe that it definitely helped us get a conviction,” Pizzola said. “There are many things that helped, but it was a little piece of the puzzle.”