Chesterton Tribune


Defense witness: Best estimated locations of cell phone are "witchcraft"

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A private investigator testified on Thursday that, according to his own analysis of Dustin McCowan’s cell-phone activity during the early-morning hours of Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, McCowan did not leave his home until around 5:30 a.m.

Ryan Harmon also called the “best estimated locations” of McCowan as provided by Verizon--which a prosecution witness on Tuesday said put McCowan’s cell phone well north of his residence at 3:30 a.m. that Friday--“witchcraft.”

In his cross examination, Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Matt Frost asked no questions about the substance of Harmon’s testimony. Frost did ask Harmon about his recent conviction in Morgan County on three counts of false informing.

Under defense attorney Nick Barnes’ direct examination, Harmon identified himself as a “legal consultant” and former Indiana State Police trooper who specialized in public corruption cases and stated that he acquired his expertise in telecommunications technology through “on-the-job” and “hands-on training.” Over the years, Harmon estimated, he performed between 800 and 1,000 “trap traces,” after being seconded from the ISP to the U.S. Marshal’s Service.

Harmon, still under direct examination, also testified that he was recently found guilty in a bench trial of false informing. Harmon said that he did not plead guilty, that he maintains his innocence, and that he is appealing his conviction.

Barnes then directed Harmon’s attention to the “best estimated locations” of McCowan’s cell phone on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, as introduced into evidence on Tuesday by PCSP Det. Gene Hopkins. Those plots, Harmon emphasized--as Hopkins did himself--“are not GPS” but can be subject to a multitude of variances in signal strength, including weather, temperature, topography, and the given cell phone’s battery strength.

In his own analysis, Harmon testified that, based on Verizon records made available to him by the defense, he drew an arc through the recorded signal strength of each call or text made or received by McCowan during the time in question. Any point on that arc, Harmon stated, would “be in play,” that is, could be where the call or text was made or received.

Harmon had prepared maps of his analysis but Frost objected to their admission into evidence and Porter Superior Court Judge Bill Alexa sustained that objection.

Harmon’s conclusions:

¥Between 12:10 and 1:21 a.m. that Friday, those arcs all intersect at the McCowan home.

¥At 5:40 a.m.--when McCowan was known to be at a Speedway on U.S. Highway 30--those arcs intersect at the gas station.

¥Between 6 and 6:20 a.m.--when McCowan was known to be at the Hutchins home--those arcs intersect at that residence in Salt Creek Commons.

¥And, finally, between 1:40 and 4:15 a.m. the arcs drawn from the signal strength of the 15 to 20 calls or texts made or received by McCowan “all run through” the McCowan residence.

“The handset was in the McCowan home” during that time,” Harmon testified. “He did not leave the home until later in the day.”

Harmon also specifically critiqued the “best known locations” to which Hopkins testified. Thus, for instance, two of those plots made within 50 seconds of each other--prior to 2:12 a.m. that Friday--are three miles apart, which Harmon said “makes no sense.” More: some of the plots made while McCowan was at the Hutchins residence are two and a half to three miles from the address on Sandalwood Drive.

Between 12:09 and 5:30 a.m. that Friday, “what is the location of Dustin McCowan’s handset?” Barnes asked.

“At his residence,” Harmon replied.

“Did you see anything indicating otherwise? Barnes pressed.

“No,” Harmon said.

“How confident are you in your opinion?” Barnes asked.

“Confident,” Harmon said.

In cross examination, Frost asked Harmon when specifically he informed McCowan’s defense of his conviction on the false informing charge.

“They knew,” Harmon said. “It happened last week.”

On what day did Harmon actually inform the defense? Frost asked.

“I don’t know,” Harmon responded. “Within a week, I told them about the conviction.”

In redirect examination, Barnes asked Harmon whether his conviction in any way affects his expertise in cell-phone technology.

“Absolutely not,” Harmon said.

Why is the arc analysis more accurate than the “best estimated locations”? Barnes asked in conclusion.

The latter, Harmon said, “is witchcraft, in my opinion.”

“You’re not saying Verizon gave false information?” Barnes asked.

“No, it’s inaccurate,” Harmon replied. “It’s not GPS. It’s the best they can do and it’s not very good.”


Posted 2/22/2013