A Picture is Worth… A Guilty Verdict
A few years ago, one of our prosecutors was trying a drug possession case. The drugs in question were found in the defendant’s car, under the center console of the vehicle. The defendant denied the drugs belonged to him, and even tried to blame a passenger for placing the drugs there just before the police pulled him over. The only exhibit presented at trial? A photograph of the drugs under the console, exactly as they were found by the investigating officer. After deliberating for a little less than an hour, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. They later told the prosecutor that the photograph was the deciding factor in their verdict. As the photograph depicted, it was unlikely a passenger could have placed the drugs where they were found.
This is just one of the many examples of the impact a photograph can have on a jury. Just one photograph can take a jury back to the scene of a crime, letting them see the scene for themselves. Trials often occur months or even years after the crime is committed. Despite a prosecutor’s best efforts, it is often difficult to re-create a crime scene exactly as it was at the time.
Most police departments have a dedicated crime scene unit or designated officers to process a crime scene, which includes taking photographs. While this is helpful in prosecuting serious cases, these units and officers are not often used in less serious cases like drug possession, simple assaults, domestic violence or property crimes. Such cases may be less serious than homicides, but in order to be successfully prosecuted, the evidence must still prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As noted in the example above, sometimes a single picture can be a key piece of evidence.
Some police departments provide cameras for their patrol officers to use, while others may not. Regardless, just about everyone today has a phone that can take pictures, which can be quickly emailed to a work account and filed with the police report. Taking a quick shot of a victim’s injuries, where drugs are found, property damage, how a suspect looked or simply the area surrounding a crime scene can really make a difference in how the case is handled in court. Moreover, a picture can often corroborate a victim’s version of events or bolster a police officer’s testimony under cross-examination.
Being a police officer, especially on patrol, can be a stressful and demanding job. No patrol officer wants to make arrests and then later have the case tossed out of court for a lack of convincing evidence. And while evidence can come in many forms, including witness testimony, DNA and fingerprints, the saying still stands true; a picture can be worth a thousand words. So the next time you are out on patrol, remember that sometimes the nearest camera can be the most effective crime-fighting tool of all.
This article is not to be considered legal advice. Please consult your police legal advisor regarding any legal issue.
Sherri Bevan Walsh
Summit County Prosecuting Attorney