Friday, June 11, 2010
‘Unauthenticated’ Photo From Website Held Inadmissible
But Justices Uphold Murder Conviction in Gang Shooting Case, Say Error Was Harmless
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A photograph from a website must be authenticated by the testimony of a person who was present when it was taken or an expert who can establish that it wasn’t altered, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
The traditional rules for authentication of photographs and films apply to materials found on and printed from the Internet, Justice Frances Rothschild wrote for Div. One, particularly since websites carry no guarantees of accuracy and digital images are easily altered.
The panel ruled that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Arthur M. Lew should not have allowed a photograph from Albert Beckley Jr.’s MySpace page into evidence. The photograph of Beckley’s girlfriend flashing a gang sign was identified by a detective who downloaded it from the social networking site and was admitted over defense objections that it was “unauthenticated.”
Nor, Rothschild said, should a purported roster of Southside Compton Crips, which included the names of Beckley and co-defendant Darrell Finn, have been admitted. Although the detective testified that the roster was created by the gang, there was no foundation for that assertion, the jurist said.
The court, however, affirmed Beckley and Finn’s convictions for the May 2007 murder of Jamal Mahone and the attempted murders of Matthew Mahone and Rene Duncan. Evidence tying the defendants to the shootings was so strong that jurors would have convicted regardless of the inadmissible evidence, Rothschild said.
Fight at Party
Prosecutors presented evidence that Jamal Mahone was involved in a fight at a party in Compton a month before the shooting, and that a rematch took place in Southside Park. After Jamal Mahone lost the fight, his brother attacked Beckley and knocked him out.
About two weeks later, Matthew Mahone testified, he saw the defendants near a liquor store. Beckley called out to him “Southside Compton Crips,” to which Mahone said he did not respond.
On the night of the shooting, Mahone said, he and his brother were standing outside their residence, which is within territory claimed by the Neighborhood Crips, a Southside Crips rival. After a car containing two women stopped in front of the house, and the occupants accused the brothers of having been involved in a club shooting the week before, Matthew Mahone said he told his brother, Duncan, and the two others they were with—Jerrica Allen and a minor identified only as Andrew B.—to go inside because he thought they were being set up for a drive-by shooting.
Minutes later, according to the testimony, a similar-looking car drove up, driven by Finn and containing Beckley and one or two others. Beckley began firing from the over the roof.
Jamal Mahone died from a single gunshot wound to the chest. A bullet grazed Duncan’s forehead and struck the side of her foot, but Matthew Mahone was unharmed.
Prosecutors presented a gang expert, Detective Joseph Valencia, who testified that the shooting was likely in retaliation for the earlier fight in the park and directed at the Neighborhood Crips, although the Mahones were not members. Another officer testified that Beckley was an admitted member of the Southside group.
Finn was interviewed by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Brian Schoonmaker while in custody on another matter in Seattle. During the interview he admitted belonging to Southside and that he was near the Mahone residence on the night of the shooting and heard the gunfire.
Finn did not testify at trial, but Beckley claimed that he had ceased active membership in the gang a year earlier. He said he knew Finn through working as a disc jockey at Finn’s parties but that Finn was not a gang member.
Beckley denied any involvement in the shooting, the fight at the park, or the alleged incident near the liquor store.
The defense also called Beckley’s girlfriend, Kyeera Fulmore. She said they had been dating for about 14 months, and that he had not been “running with” the gang, at her insistence.
She also said that she was at school the night of the shooting, and that Beckley was babysitting her 2-year-old that night.
The prosecution called Schoonmaker as a rebuttal witness. He presented the MySpace photo of Fulmore, purportedly flashing a Southside Compton Crips sign.
Rothschild explained that the rules governing photographic identification, as set forth in People v. Bowley (1963) 59 Cal.2d 855 and People v. Doggett (1948) 83 Cal.App.2d 405 remain controlling. Those rules, she said, guarantee that a photograph or film will accurately depict what it purports to show, and that composite or faked photographs will not be allowed into evidence.
Since Schoonmaker had no personal knowledge as to the photograph’s validity, and there was no expert to establish its genuineness, it should have been excluded.
“Such expert testimony is even more critical today to prevent the admission of manipulated images than it was when Doggett and Bowley were decided,” the jurist wrote.
Citing a recent article in a law journal, she wrote:
“Recent experience shows that digital photographs can be changed to produce false images....Indeed, with the advent of computer software programs such as Adobe Photoshop ‘it does not always take skill, experience, or even cognizance to alter a digital photo.’”
The error was not prejudicial, however, the justice concluded, since Fulmore’s testimony, even if unrebutted, would not have established Beckley’s alibi or caused the jury to disbelieve eyewitness testimony from Mathhew Mahone, who initially picked Beckley’s photo out of a book five days after the shooting.
The court did reverse on one point, holding in an unpublished portion of the opinion that the evidence did not establish that the “primary activities” of the Southside Crips were violent or drug crimes, so the gang enhancements had to be stricken.
While the striking of the enhancements did not affect Beckley’s 50-year-to-life sentence under the “10-20-life” law, the justice explained, Finn’s sentence, as a non-shooter, could not be enhanced under that law in the absence of proof the shooting was for the benefit of a criminal street gang, reducing his sentence to 25 years to life.
The case is People v. Beckley, 10 S.O.S. 3135.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company