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Analysis can turn bits of video into an airtight criminal conviction

A tattoo, a goatee, a case of beer and a missed train — these disparate items caught on various video cameras led police to a brutal rapist and to his subsequent conviction, illustrating the growing importance of routine security surveillance in Canada’s criminal justice system, says Hamilton forensic video analyst Michael Plaxton.

“I think it’s fair to say that virtually every crime that occurs in an urban area has video,” says Plaxton, principal of New Media Forensics, which provides expert video analysis for both Crown and defence clients. Plaxton also serves as a forensic digital analyst for Hamilton Police Services and has also worked for the Ontario Provincial Police and Durham Regional Police Services.

While he has handled numerous high-profile cases — including the Tim Bosma murder — he finds a case from 2007 a useful behind-the-scenes look at just how minor camera sightings, coupled with his expertise, can dovetail with other scraps of evidence to determine guilt or innocence.

In the case, a 41-year-old woman was attacked on her way home from work in Pickering at 11 p.m.  She was badly beaten and sexually assaulted.

“As I recall there were something like 87 stitches into her face,” Plaxton tells AdvocateDaily.com. “It was really horrendous.”

Some young guys who were partying at an apartment building nearby went to her aid, but the assailant got away, he says.

Plaxton’s involvement began the next day. Police had gathered security videos from all the buildings in the apartment complex but had not noticed one shot of a suspicious-looking man entering one of the buildings that night.

“It was not the building they wanted me to look at, and I said to them, have you seen this guy?” Plaxton recalls. “He was quite dishevelled, had dirt on his face  it was more than likely blood, but the video was black and white.”

Investigators went to the building and swabbed the number pad at the entrance  the man had to punch in his code to open the door — and they found traces of blood that matched the victim’s DNA, Plaxton says.

He started reviewing hours of video of people coming and going at the building and pinpointed the man because of a distinctive tattoo on the back of his neck. The footage showed him leaving the building that night, Plaxton says.

“It was still not enough for the cops to make an arrest,” he says, but they interviewed him.

“Now, the fellow I found coming into the building had a goatee, and the man in question did not,” says Plaxton. “They asked him if he ever had a goatee, and he said he used to but had shaved it off a year before.

"But I had video of him from earlier on that same day, coming in with a case of beer," he says. "I thought, well, where’s the nearest beer store? I went there and asked them for video from that afternoon, and I found video of him leaving with the case of beer.

"The video was straight from the door camera, so it’s his full face, he’s smiling," Plaxton says. "And he’s got a goatee. So now we’ve got him lying.”

At that point, the person of interest began arguing the image could not have been him because he’d gone to Toronto on the GO train that afternoon.

“I thought, fair enough, so I went to the GO station," Plaxton says. "I got the video and you can see him there clearly. He’s wearing the same clothes as our person of interest in the video, and we watch him as he misses the train. We then had video of him leaving the station.”

It was Plaxton’s first “comparison” case, matching the subject in videos from different sources and of varying qualities. He matched the man’s shoes, clothing and tattoo to nail down the suspect's identification.

“I submitted a preliminary report, I never actually got it finished because — according to the Crown — when his lawyer saw my report they immediately started talking plea deal," he says.

The man served nine years for the assault.

One of the difficulties with comparisons is that videos have different frame sizes and shapes, some are in colour and others in black and white, while some use infrared imaging, Plaxton says.

“What we mostly look for is unique characteristics — a tear in the sleeve, a stain,” he says. “If a system is poor-quality, a tear or stain may show up in one video and not another. In court, you have to be prepared to explain that.”

In the 2007 case, Plaxton says the neck tattoo appeared as a vague V shape on the apartment video.

“I took one of his mug shots taken from behind, and I simulated the same lack of quality that we see in the video to show what the tattoo might look like in a video system like that,” he says.

That kind of evidence will be disputed in court, Plaxton points out.

“But you have to trust the judge or the jury to understand what they’re looking at. That’s really my goal up there, to assist the trier of facts to understand what they’re seeing in the video,” he says.

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