Crime and Cask: Welcome back, Crime Fans! Today, we're taking a deep dive into the Lowcountry murder trial with a special guest. Joining us is Les Aker, a renowned computer scientist and cryptographer, who followed the case with a digital hawk's eye. Les has had an amazing career. He's a scientist. His education is based on Computer Science. His work experience is working as a research scientist at a Tier I research laboratory (nrl.navy.mil), where he applied scientific processes to find answers to questions no one had solved before.
So imagine Les sitting hunched over his computer, the trial playing on another screen, a gnawing feeling in your gut that something just isn't right. Not with the lawyers, not with the evidence, not with the whole damn picture they're trying to paint. That's where Les Aker found himself, immersed in the Lowcountry murder trial, his ultra high-tech brain screaming at the monitor, demanding answers.
Now, I'm not an attorney or a techie like Les Aker, but I know data, and in my book, Defending Alex Murdaugh, Not Guilty by Reasonable Doubt I presented a lot of it through verified experiments. Ones and zeroes are the digital heartbeats of our modern world. According to Les Aker, "the data presented in that courtroom had more holes than a Lowcountry mosquito net." It started with the On-Star data, supposedly "broken" by the FBI, and riddled with glitches, gaps, and contradictions. Les' inner cynic screamed: why didn't the defense object? This wasn't valid evidence, it was a data mosh pit!
Then came the GPS. Speeds fluctuating, times contradicting, signals bouncing between roofs, dashboards, and phone networks. Les knows his own devices do the same dance, a GPS waltz of uncertainty. How could they use this shaky foundation to pinpoint someone's movements with any kind of accuracy? The defense should have thrown out the whole GPS charade like a bad oyster. I asked Les about Maggie Murdaugh's phone and where her GPS data mysteriously disappeared to. Les says there are several options. "One is that the phone was shielded and not receiving signals from the orbiting satellites. Which might happen when it was in a building. Another is that SLED didn’t do the extraction correctly. The corruption angle would be it didn’t show something that supported their case. It's hard for other people to get data from devices in cases like this. They won’t give you the phone to do your own test. They will only show you what they claim to have gotten from the phone. They won’t let you come to their office and do your own download or examine the physical device."
Photo Credit: SLED
Wi-Fi, that invisible web weaving through houses and cafes? They barely touched on it, leaving everyone wondering how crucial jumps between networks affected their precious data comparisons. And don't even get Mr. Aker started on Voice over IP, the silent language of smartphones. Was it cellular? Was it Wi-Fi? Did anyone even bother to check? He has valid questions, and we'd like to see answers in the 2nd Alex Murdaugh trial.
And the icing on this data disaster cake? The cell towers. The silent giants are relaying our every digital step. "Did they check their health, asked Aker's?" "Did they delve into their maintenance logs? Or did they just blindly accept whatever signals trickled down, like trusting a faulty weather app before venturing out into a hurricane?"
Photo Credit: Court TV
It is Crime and Cask's belief that Les' skepticism wasn't born of malice, but of a deep understanding of technology's fickle nature. It's not a fingerprint, it's a watercolor painting, easily warped by the brushstrokes of collection, storage, and manipulation. These "experts" (SLED) treated their apps like oracles, spitting out truths without question, oblivious to the potential glitches and phantom signals lurking in the code.
Mr. Aker was left wondering if SLED had any police officers or contractors who are really experts at this technology. "This is made worse because SLED is the state agency people in SC are supposed to call in the event they are victims of a cybercrime. The people they brought to the murder trial demonstrated clearly that they were not able to tell when the App they were “certified” to operate was giving them inaccurate or false data in the generated report. They run the App and accept anything it tells them, like it was a fingerprint. It’s not. The data can be manipulated during collection, storage, or the download process. It’s like having them testify that they know how to tune a radar detector in their patrol car, then have it record the speed of a vehicle, pull over the vehicle, and give the driver a speeding ticket. They have no idea how the radar detector works beyond the obvious: it puts the speed on the LED screen for them to read. They can’t tell if it is reporting accurate information unless the data is so bad it can’t be ignored."
Photo Credit Wilmington University
Les describes a time in the early 1990s when the FBI decided to create their first “Computer Crime” squad in the Washington Field Office, they appointed Special Agent Jim Settle to lead it. They assembled a group of their best agents who had been chasing Russian spies, busting insurance companies for fraud, and similar things. They knew nothing about dealing with computers. Settle sent members of his new squad to the lab to meet with me and my team of geeks who worked for the lab’s computer security office. We spent weeks teaching them how to execute a search warrant to seize and protect computers. They used to bring us a random computer they had seized and ask for help understanding it. Not much has changed since then. Law enforcement can buy lots of “tools” now. Most of them are still not very well trained outside of their guns and badge roles. Pushing a button to execute a tool, and then reading the report the tool created doesn’t make someone an expert.
Les Aker and Crime and Cask, sat and watched the Murdaugh trial just like all of you, frustration mounting, as the lawyers stumbled through this technological minefield. The Lowcountry, Mr. Aker realized, wasn't just home to Spanish moss and shrimp boats, "it was a breeding ground for inept statements and, dare I say, it’s just not in their wheelhouse, and that allowed them to cast it incorrectly.", says Aker. Their blind acceptance of flimsy data, and their failure to challenge the digital shadows cast by phones and towers, left me with a chilling conclusion: justice, in this case, might have gotten lost in the data fog.
This isn't just a courtroom saga, it's a cautionary tale. A reminder that in the digital age, evidence has many shades of gray, and the line between truth and manipulation can be as thin as a phone screen. Our takeaway from Crime and Cask Media? Trust your gut, question the experts, and don't blindly accept the data shadows dancing on the courtroom wall. Because sometimes, the truth might be hiding in the glitches, the gaps, and the deafening silence of the untested cell towers. We can only hope that if there is a trial part II for Murdaugh, the prosecution and the defense get the correct data, and do not blindly believe the tool runners....