Dallas County case shows rise of cellphone data as prosecutors’ tool

By Jennifer Emily, Dallas Morning News

When a Dallas County jury sent Franklin Davis to death row for killing 16-year-old Shania Gray to stop her from testifying that he had raped her, the best evidence of his guilt, prosecutors said, came from his and his victim’s cellphones. Davis had tried to destroy them — and the information they contained — by throwing them in separate ponds.

“Nobody knows you as well as your cellphone does,” said prosecutor Brandon Birmingham. “They’re almost like your clone. You’re revealing your mind through your cellphone.”

Police have long been able to determine suspects’ locations at the time of a crime by identifying what cellphone towers they were near then.

But now, prosecutors and police can do much more. They are increasingly using data contained in cellphones to prove cases in court. And they can often do it even when the criminals try to erase the data or destroy phones entirely.

Davis, who was sentenced to death last month, used his phone to research how to get away with murder; to send fake texts that appeared as if they came from Shania’s phone; and to look for the location of the Irving park where he killed her. Also recovered on Davis’ phone were recordings of phone conversations Davis had with Shania while posing as someone else to gain her confidence.

In another case this year, Dallas County prosecutors obtained a conviction of a man and a woman who used text messages to plot the 2011 murder of the man’s pregnant ex-girlfriend. The texts even included a discussion about how the pair should dispose of the body.

“Over the last 10 years or so, the advancement in technology has really changed the way we prosecute and investigate these cases. But this case was the Rosetta stone when it comes to just how much can be done with the evidence we get,” said prosecutor Glen Fitzmartin, who also worked on the Davis case. “It will change the way we and other DA’s offices handle cases where this evidence exists.”

Missing piece

Prosecutors asked experts — including the U.S. Secret Service — to find the data stored on Shania’s and Davis’ damaged phones.

At first, though, the evidence recovered from Davis’ phone made a dent in prosecutors’ theory that Davis was guilty of raping Shania and that he killed her in September 2012 to stop her from testifying at his trial scheduled the following month.

The experts found text messages on Davis’ phone from Shania that said she lied about the sexual assaults and planned to tell the truth.

But those messages turned out to be fake.

Birmingham and Fitzmartin said they believed from the beginning that something was off about the text messages.

In these six text messages, the letter “E” was replaced by the numeral “3.” She also swore and called her mother a name. Birmingham and Fitzmartin could not find another text message from Shania like those.

Shania’s cellphone records didn’t show the outgoing texts. But Davis’ cellphone showed they came from her number.

Carrollton police Detective Dena Williams said that the cellphone data was the “puzzle piece” that put the case together.

“My cop instinct said, ‘This is why he killed her; to shut her up,’ ” Williams said. But with the data, “now we can prove it.”

Uncovering the truth

Prosecutors asked Andrew Hoog, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the Illinois-based viaForensics, to create an exact replica of the contents of Davis’ phone.

Hoog’s testimony at Davis’ trial proved what prosecutors had suspected: Davis sent the text messages with a phone app that made them appear as though they came from Shania’s phone.

Hoog’s company usually helps corporations and government agencies protect their phones. But they occasionally step in to help law enforcement, too. They provide a free tool to help officers recover information on phones. And sometimes experts like Hoog are needed to delve deeper.

“I feel compelled to help out when I can, especially in cases that strike a chord because it’s truly awful,” said Hoog. “Phones are becoming more important and involved in almost all kinds of investigations.”

Birmingham said that had the sexual assault case gone to trial, those fake text messages likely would have been used by Davis as evidence of innocence. Prosecutors don’t typically have the resources to delve as deep into cellphone recovery in a sexual assault case as they do in a death penalty case.

Davis admitted under oath that he killed Shania. But he denied the rapes. Had Hoog not proved that the text messages were actually sent by Davis, Birmingham said, Davis would have been able to testify at the death penalty trial that Shania lied about the sexual assaults.

“It helps us get to the truth, and that’s the most important thing about all of this,” Birmingham said. “And not the truth from Franklin Davis’ lying eyes. The truth from science.”

Follow Jennifer Emily on Twitter at @dallascourts.

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