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Seeing isn’t always believing with video evidence

When inexperienced police personnel give ‘expert’ testimony on video footage, honest errors can have big repercussions for those who are falsely identified, Crystal Beach forensic video analyst Michael Plaxton tells

“I have rarely seen a deliberate deception, it's usually an honest mistake due to lack of training,” says Plaxton, principal of New Media Forensics, which provides expert video analysis for both Crown and defence clients.

Plaxton, who served as a forensic digital analyst for Hamilton Police Services and also worked for the Ontario Provincial Police and Durham Regional Police Services, has handled numerous high-profile cases — including the Tim Bosma murder. He recalls one U.S. case he was involved in where a man was arrested based on video evidence from a police dashboard camera.

It was night-time, and the police headlights were on the suspect vehicle, and the footage showed the driver opening the door, jumping out of the car and running. The suspect’s car was in reverse, so it started slowly rolling backwards.

“For about two seconds at most, the suspect car’s interior was illuminated by the headlights of the police vehicle,” Plaxton says. “That was the only video there was of the car being lit up because the officer continued the chase of the driver.”

A state trooper looked at the video footage, saw what he believed to be a black male in the back seat of the car and came to the conclusion that it was the suspect’s brother, who was then arrested, he says.

Plaxton says, at trial, the officer could not get the recording to stop on any of the three frames where he says he saw the man in the back seat. The police officer was unable to reproduce his results in court, which Plaxton says any expert must be able to do.

“To make matters worse, the defence attorney had no questions upon cross-examination,” he says.

As part of the appeal, Plaxton reviewed the video and was able to determine that what they were actually looking at was the headrest of the driver’s seat with some shadows on it from the headlights passing by.

“I'm going to be kind to the state trooper because it certainly looked like a face. It happens — our brains are wired to see familiar patterns where none exist,” he says, adding that this is why the work of the video analyst is so important. 

Plaxton says he’ll often do things that people don’t expect a digital forensic expert to do. In this case, he found the exact make and model of the car in question, got into the back seat and assumed a position that would put his head where police say they saw a face.

“It was physically impossible,” he says. “I noted the distances between the headrest and the window, and how you're talking about putting a person’s head in a seven-inch wide space. He would have to be on his knees in the back seat, which didn’t make sense."

Plaxton proved beyond a doubt that it was a matter of mistaken identity. He photographed the similar car from the same angle and overlapped it onto the images from the video.  

“As I went back and forth from one to the other, you could clearly see that it was actually the headrest,” he says. "That’s my goal — to assist the trier of facts to understand what they’re seeing."

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