N.H. judge orders Amazon to provide Echo recordings in double murder case
A New Hampshire judge has ordered tech giant Amazon to provide authorities with recordings from an Echo smart speaker with Alexa voice capability that investigators seized from a Farmington, N.H., home where two women were killed last year.
The Nov. 5 order was issued in the case against Timothy Verrill, 36, who’s charged with killing Christine Sullivan and Jenna Pellegrini in January 2017 in a house on Meaderboro Road.
Strafford County Superior Court Justice Steven M. Houran wrote that the Echo device may have captured the chilling moments when Sullivan was stabbed repeatedly. Pellegrini was also stabbed multiple times.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 280-pound Verrill has pleaded not guilty to murder charges and several lesser counts stemming from alleged crime scene tampering.
“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 January 27, 2017 to January 29, 2017,” Houran wrote in his two-page ruling, “. . . and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen” during that period.
Mason Kortz, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyber Law Clinic at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, said it’s telling that Houran used the probable cause standard, which is the “highest standard for electronic searches,” in weighing the government’s request to obtain the Echo speaker data.
The use of that standard, rather than the lower reasonable suspicion standard that applies for other types of searches, shows Houran is “taking seriously the fact that there is a privacy interest that falls under the scope of the Fourth Amendment constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure,” Kortz said.
Houran ordered Amazon to “produce forthwith to the court any recordings made by an Echo smart speaker with Alexa voice command capability, FCC ID number ZWJ-0823, from the period of January 27, 2017 to January 29, 2017, as well as any information identifying cellular devices that were paired to that speaker during that time period.”
Asked for comment on the order, the company released a brief statement.
“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” the statement said. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
A public defender for Verrill couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
State Police currently have possession of the Echo speaker, which investigators maintain was lawfully seized from the grisly crime scene at 979 Meaderboro Road, according to court papers.
Ppolice are attempting to scour electronic devices for evidence with increasing frequency, said Mark Bartholomew, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Law who specializes in cyberlaw.
“More and more, police and prosecutors are viewing household smart devices as evidentiary treasure troves,” Bartholomew wrote in an e-mail. “This is only natural given how ubiquitous smart speakers have become in American households. I don’t think you can expect prosecutors to avoid asking for these digital records out of privacy concerns, particularly in a case like this double murder that has captured the public’s attention.”
Bartholomew said the “real question is whether the tech companies can resist these orders. This is new territory for the courts. Tech companies worry about any moves by the legal system that make their products seems less like helpful assistants and more like unwanted snoops. As a result, they sometimes publicly resist rulings like these. If push comes to shove, the tech companies may end up building more safeguards into their systems so that records become impossible to obtain without some sort of code or digital fingerprint from the smart device’s owner.”
As for the New Hampshire case, the details are stark. State Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald’s office said in a statement last year that Verrill allegedly stabbed Sullivan and Pellegrini and struck Sullivan in the head “with a blunt object.”
Verrill is also accused of concealing the bodies by wrapping them in tarps and coverings and placing them under a porch on the property; pouring Prestone Driveway Heat ice melt onto a blood stain on the porch; and stashing a bloody sheet, Pellegrini’s belongings, and other blood-stained items in trash bags in the basement, the release said.
Jury selection in the trial is currently scheduled for late April, records show.