In November 2018, a judge ruled that New Hampshire authorities could listen to audio recordings from one of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker systems to use as evidence in a double-murder trial. The judge directed Amazon to produce the recordings which were stored on Amazon computer servers.
Echo’s bundled intelligent personal assistant service “Alexa” can be activated by a “wake word” such as “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer.” It can also be paired with cell phones.
In 2017, two women, Christine Sullivan (48) and Jenna Pellegrini (32) were stabbed to death in a home located in Farmington. Timothy Verril from Dover was arrested and stood accused of murder in the second degree. He entered a plea of not guilty and awaits trial in May 2019.
The two women were killed sometime between January 27 and 29, 2017. Their bodies, with stab wounds and signs of blunt force trauma, were discovered by State Police Sergeant Brian Strong. A large pile of tarps weighted down by a wooden and metal bench caught his attention outside the Meaderboro Road home.
On January 29, Dean Smoronk, Sullivan’s boyfriend and owner of the house where the two women lost their lives told police “he arrived home from a trip to Florida to find that the house had been turned into a crime scene.”
Police arrived on the scene and noted blood splatters on the refrigerator and walls of the kitchen. In the bedroom upstairs, blood had soaked into the mattress.
At Verrill’s bail hearing in Strafford County Superior Court on August 7, Sgt. Strong gave the grisly details about what happened after he spotted the suspicious-looking pile of tarps:
“It felt like something was in the tarps. I found a human foot that was cool to the touch.”
The foot belonged to Sullivan. Pellegrini’s body lay beneath that of her friend.
Chief Medical Examiner Thomas Andrew testified that Sullivan’s death was the result of eight stab wounds and blunt trauma to her head. Pellegrini had a total of 43 stab wounds to her neck, torso, and back.
Prosecutors representing the slain women had reason to believe that the Echo device had recorded details of the murder as it happened: the attack itself and subsequent removal of her body from the home.
Court documents revealed that “prosecutors believe there is probable cause to believe there is evidence on the Echo, such as audio recordings of the attack and events that followed it.”
When Echo’s Alexa recognizes a wake-up word, Echo “begins audio recording through its integrated microphones, including recording the fraction of a second of audio before the wake-up words,” according to the attorney general’s office prosecutors assigned to the case.
An Echo system captures audio fragments while it waits for a user’s command. The intelligent speakers keep records of all Alexa communications as well as those made by connected devices paired to it, such as cell phones, until a human being deletes them manually.
Amazon computer servers receive copies of the recorded data every time the wake word is spoken. An Echo “records your voice and transfers it to a processor for analysis so that it can fulfill requests or answer questions. The recordings are streamed and stored remotely and can be reviewed or deleted over time,” according to Amazon.
Police officers who first investigated the crime scene seized the Echo device from the home’s kitchen counter where it sat, capable of recording everything after acknowledging its wake word.
Verrill was a friend and former roommate of Sullivan and Smoronk. The accused was allegedly motivated to kill the women because he was convinced the two were police informants in a suspected drug operation. Strong testified during the bail hearing that investigators had evidence that Smoronk, Sullivan, and Verril were all dealing narcotics.
Amazon, to its credit, refused to turn over any user data from the appropriated Echo “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.”
This was not the first time Amazon had been involved in producing evidence regarding a capital crime. In 2017, the company complied with a legal request to furnish Echo recordings as evidence in an Arkansas murder trial after the defendant, who owned the speaker, agreed to release the data.
In early December 2017, the charge that Arkansas resident James Bates had murdered Victor Collins in 2015, after an evening of watching football and drinking, was dropped after County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith filed a motion to dismiss the case. Smith said the evidence, in that case, pointed to more than one reasonable explanation for the death of Collins, who was found face-down, floating in a hot tub owned by Bates.
A spokesperson for tech giant clarified that “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
In the New Hampshire double-murder case, criminal investigators “laid out the mostly circumstantial evidence against Verrill during an evidentiary bail hearing last summer,” according to The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Prosecutors hope that Sullivan’s Echo will provide irrefutable evidence that Verrill was, in fact, the assailant in the case regarding the two slain women.