Alexa might have been listening, as she almost always is, when Christine Sullivan was stabbed to death in the kitchen of the New Hampshire home where Sullivan lived with her boyfriend Dean Smoronk.
But does Alexa remember any of it?
That's the question prosecutors in the US state are hoping will produce key evidence in the murder case against Timothy Verrill, who is accused of killing Sullivan and her friend, Jenna Pelligrini, over suspicions they were informing police about an alleged drug operation.
Prosecutors say Alexa, the artificial woman who personifies the Amazon Echo smart device, was sitting on the kitchen counter the entire time.
Now, a judge has ordered Amazon to turn over any recordings the Echo device may have made from January 27, 2017 — the day the women were killed — until January 29, when police discovered them tucked beneath a tarp under the back porch:
"The court finds there is probable cause to believe the server(s) and/or records maintained for or by Amazon.com contain recordings made by the Echo smart speaker from the period of Jan. 27 to Jan. 29, 2017 … and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen."
Verrill has pleaded not guilty. His representative in court could not be immediately reached for comment.
Verrill's case marks at least the second time Amazon has become entangled in a high-stakes murder case in which its device, a task manager activated on voice command, morphs into a de facto witness for the prosecution.
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson indicated Amazon wouldn't be turning over the data so easily, appearing to prioritise consumer privacy as it has done in the past.
"Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us," the spokesperson said. "Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."
Amazon’s Echo waits for a ‘wake word’ before it begins recording.
There's no guarantee that Alexa will turn into a star witness. For the Echo smart device to be activated, typically it has to be prompted by the words "Alexa," "Computer," or "Echo"; the "wake words" that cause the device to begin recording.
But if Alexa really were listening, evidence collected so far indicates she would have heard a horrific attack.
Investigators laid out the mostly circumstantial evidence against suspect Timothy Verrill during an evidentiary bail hearing earlier in the year.
On January 29 Smoronk, the owner of the house, told police he arrived home from a trip to Florida to find that it had been turned into a crime scene, according to testimony. Sullivan was nowhere to be found, and so he called 911.
When police arrived, they found blood splattered on the kitchen walls and on the refrigerator. It was soaked into the mattress in the upstairs bedroom, where police believe Pellegrini was stabbed 43 times.
Verill had previously lived at the house, also allegedly the centre of a drug trafficking empire, with Sullivan and Smoronk and had been friends with all of them.
On the night of the murder Smoronk, the suspected drug trafficker, received a phone call from Verill in the early morning hours: Verrill, Smoronk told police, was concerned Jenna Pellegrini was an informant.
In a matter of hours, home surveillance captured Verrill arriving at the home wearing a flannel shirt and a ball cap, according to police testimony. Within 20 minutes, he was captured attempting to obscure the lens of three of the surveillance cameras before ultimately shutting the system down. He apparently returned the house multiple times over the proceeding days.
When executing a search warrant, police found the women's bodies beneath the tarp and found the knives buried a foot beneath the ground, wrapped in a flannel shirt. The police found a shovel speckled with blood, believed to be Sullivan's, resting on top of the porch.
And in the kitchen, of course, they found Alexa, and took the device into custody.
Tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, Apple with its iPhone and Google with its "Home" device are what a recent article in the Harvard Law Review called "'surveillance intermediaries'….entities that sit between law enforcement agencies and the public's personal information, and that have the power to decide just how easy or difficult it will be for law enforcement to access that information."
According to the article, there were over 32,000 requests for information by law enforcement to Facebook alone during a six-month period in 2017.
"While intermediaries must comply with statutory and constitutional law governing law enforcement requests for information," the article noted, "they still hold a large degree of discretion when processing those requests: discretion in how critically they evaluate the legality of requests, in slowing down the process by insisting on proceduralism, and in minimising their capacity to respond to legal requests by implementing encryption."
Verrill's case is set for trial in May 2019.
Source: Read Full Article