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Assistant public defender Karen Miller had never heard of a car’s “black box” before she was appointed to represent John Walker. “Total fluke. Total luck,” she said, referring to the fortuitous way a black box helped her win an acquittal. It was one of only a handful of cases nationwide in which such testimony has been introduced in a criminal trial. She was talking about a case in Lee County, Fla., last January. Florida v. John Walker, No. 00-2866CF RTC (Lee Co., Fla., Cir. Ct.). Walker, 21, was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide based on speeding and reckless driving. The big challenge for Miller was a witness who testified that Walker passed her when she was driving 90 mph, and then crossed the center line and collided head-on with a Chevy Cavalier in which two people died. Walker, who was injured in the crash, claimed to have no memory of it. Miller called Jim Harris, an accident investigator. “Gee,” she remembered Harris saying, when told Walker had been driving a 1999 Chevy S 10 pickup truck, “too bad the car wasn’t a year later. That was the first year they had event data recorders.” (The car driven by the two victims, Elizabeth Ramirez, 28, and David Manzano, 32, was a 1994 model.) That was the first time Miller heard of the devices better known as black boxes, she said. About a month later, Harris brought them up again.”Guess what?” he told her. “Your boy’s car did have an event data recorder.” It wasn’t as sophisticated as the following year’s model, but it still might be useful. That was the good news. The bad news? The car was gone and the police didn’t know where it was. Miller filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that the defense had been denied possibly exculpatory evidence. It didn’t succeed, but it may have inspired the thorough search that led the police to find the truck in a Miami junkyard. Harris said it took him and a highway patrolman 15 minutes to rip the center console from the truck’s twisted hulk, pull up the carpet and pry loose the recorder. The state’s expert, John Buchanan, was also present, and they downloaded the data right then and there. The boxes are enhanced versions of the modules that deploy air bags. They only record for a few seconds before the bags inflate. Walker’s didn’t track braking or several other functions that might have been valuable — and that some later models do track — but it could help them calculate speed. Harris testified that the car was traveling at around 53 mph at impact. Buchanan countered with three arguments, he recalled in an interview. The maximum speed the box could record was 58. It suffered a power failure, rendering all data suspect. And speed wasn’t even the big issue. It was who crossed the center line. Harris agreed that 58 was the top speed, but it didn’t matter since the speed was below the cap. Yes, there was a power failure, he added, but only after the information was recorded. Harris and Miller agreed that the center-line question was huge. A highway patrolman testified that marks on the road proved Walker’s car had crossed over. And the eyewitness said that she saw him cross. In court, Miller demanded that the patrolman produce photographs of the marks. Though he took more than 100, she said, he couldn’t produce one to document this statement. The eyewitness had given different accounts of her speed and her location at the time of the crash, and Miller hammered at those. Also, toxicology tests determined that Ramirez, who was driving the Cavalier, was legally drunk at the time of the accident while Walker was not. The black box raised doubts about the witness’s credibility and it helped focus the jury’s attention, Miller said. Rather than simply talk about it, Harris showed them the data. He explained that each time the box experiences an “event,” it registers an “ignition cycle.” If all was working properly, the number 567 would register. The jurors gathered around his laptop and watched him download. “Yup, 567, just like you said,” one juror exclaimed as the data came through. “It’s always a good sign when the jury testifies for you,” Harris chuckled. How important was the box? It helped, Miller said, but it was by no means the whole defense. “I think it was the combination of everything,” she said. “You’ve got lots of reasonable doubts happening. In most criminal cases, it’s the totality of the evidence, or in this case the lack of evidence, that matters.” “We could have won without it,” added Harris. But in a case built on negatives, the box “gave us something truly positive that was on our side.” Buchanan cautioned that it’s not infallible.”I am 100 percent for the device,” he said. But there can be false readings. When a car “burns out,” the speedometer can register 100 while the car hardly moves. The challenge — and Harris agreed — is to compare the scene evidence “and make sure they match.” “It’s a tool,” Buchanan said. “It doesn’t stand alone.”

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