Court orders retrial in Google Maps-related murder case

Evidence planting alleged by ex-Cisco employee convicted of killing wife

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Ruling that a judge erred in blocking two experts from testifying that an incriminating Google Maps search record found on the defendant's laptop was planted there, a North Carolina appeals court has ordered a new trial for ex-Cisco employee Bradley Cooper, convicted two years ago in the 2008 strangulation death of his wife Nancy.

How damning was that Google Maps evidence? From the appeals court ruling:

(FBI) Special Agent (Greg) Johnson and Detective (Chris) Chappell testified that the temporary internet files recovered from the laptop indicated someone conducted a Google Map search on the laptop at approximately 1:15 p.m. on 11 July, (2008) the day before Ms. Cooper was murdered. They concluded that this search was done by someone using the laptop while it was at the Cisco office where Defendant worked. The State's experts testified that the Google Map search was initiated by someone who entered the zip code associated with Defendant's house, and then moved the map and zoomed in on the exact spot on Fielding Drive where Ms. Cooper's body was found.

According to the court document, the Coopers' marriage was in a shambles and the pair had argued at a party the evening before Nancy Cooper disappeared. After reporting her missing, Bradley Cooper told police his wife had gone jogging and never returned. He was observed on a store security camera early that morning buying items that included laundry detergent.

Cooper's defense attorney, Howard Kurtz, had planned to rely upon a longtime computer network security expert, Jay Ward, who was prepared to testify that in his judgment the Google Maps evidence had been manufactured and placed on Cooper's computer after the murder. However, the prosecution objected to Ward offering such testimony, contending that his lack of specific computer forensics expertise rendered him unqualified. The trial judge accepted that objection and Ward was limited to testifying only in general terms about computer network security.

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Kurtz responded by enlisting computer forensics expert Giovanni Masucci to testify in place of Ward. According to the court document: "Masucci's conclusion was the same as Ward's: that the Google Map files had 'been placed on the hard drive [and] could not have been the result of normal internet activity.'"

However, the prosecution again objected, this time contending that the last-minute switch from Ward to Masucci violated rules of evidence. The judge agreed, Masucci did not testify, and thus the jury that convicted Cooper never heard testimony questioning the authenticity of the damning Google Maps evidence.

The appeals court ruled that the judge was mistaken both the first time when he ruled Ward was insufficiently qualified and the second when he failed to accept the defense attorney's good-faith attempt to provide an alternative expert witness.

The sole physical evidence linking Defendant to Ms. Cooper's murder was the alleged Google Map search, conducted on Defendant's laptop, of the exact area where Ms. Cooper's body was discovered. Absent this evidence, the evidence connecting Defendant to this crime was primarily potential motive, opportunity, and testimony of suspicious behavior. We hold, whether the error was constitutional or not, that erroneously preventing Defendant from presenting expert testimony, challenging arguably the strongest piece of the State's evidence, constituted reversible error and requires a new trial.

As a sideshow, the appeal also slapped down prosecutors for waving the "national security" banner to ward off a defense attempt to examine test data replicating the Google Maps search that was created by investigators.

It was error for the trial court to shut down this line of questioning without ascertaining how, or if, national security or some other legitimate interest outweighed the probative value of this information to Defendant. On remand, the trial court must determine with a reasonable degree of specificity how national security or some other legitimate interest would be compromised by discovery of particular data or materials, and memorialize its ruling in some form allowing for informed appellate review.

Defense attorney Kurtz told a North Carolina television station yesterday that was "thrilled" to see his client get a new trial.

(Armadillo-T: Now that's a compacct car.)

"It's hard to be completely happy when something like this happens, because we shouldn't have had to have gone through an appeal," Kurtz said. "The evidence that drove the conviction was the map. So the fact that I had not only one but two witnesses prepared to say that these maps were planted on that computer would have made all the difference in the world."

(Update: Slashdot points to this 2011 story that has prosecutors alleging in closing argumnts of the trial that Cooper, a VoIP expert, may have borrowed a Cisco 3825S router from his employer in order to fake a phone call from his wife to him after she was already dead. The router was never found.)

(h/t Brad Reese.)

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