Grunwald murder defense hopes to exclude cell data from trial
Autopsy photos and cellphone location data will be up for discussion as the second suspect in David Grunwald’s murder heads to trial.
Dominic Johnson, now 18, is one of four people charged with shooting and killing 16-year-old Grunwald in November 2016.
A jury convicted co-defendent Erick Almandinger on all nine charges, including first-degree murder, on May 31.
Like Almandinger, Johnson will have an evidentiary hearing to see what evidence will be presented to a jury during his trial.
After a three-day hearing for Almandinger, Judge Gregory Heath ruled state prosecutors may use pictures from Grunwald’s body at the crime scene and from his autopsy.
He also permitted jurors to see pictures of Almandinger’s “gang-related” activity.
Johnson’s attorney, Lyle Stohler has filed similar motions in regards to the autopsy photos and suppressing evidence obtained from Johnson’s cell phone as well as statements he made during the investigation.
State prosecutors said a defense motion that's different in Johnson's case aims to preclude cell site evidence and call for a so-called Daubert hearing on the admissibility of expert testimony.
In his motion, Stohler argues the state needs to prove its witness, Nathan Bucknall, is qualified to analyze cell phone data and use the information to map the location of the phones.
Bucknall was called a witness in Almandinger’s trial where he showed jurors maps where cell towers placed the defendants on Knik River Road, where Grunwald’s body was found, and Sitze Road, where troopers found his burned-up Ford Bronco.
“From 11:57 to 11:58 we see Johnson’s phone ping off this tower with a pretty good area of accuracy and that’s off Sitze Road,” Bucknall explained to the jury on May 22.
Bucknall talked about triangulating and cell phone “pinging” and how he used that to determine the direction the suspects were moving based on the location of the towers their cell phones hit.
Stohler said Bucknall’s report is an approximation because “for exact coverage areas the wireless provider would need to be contacted and they would have to assist in this matter.”
He wrote troopers do not have the equipment necessary to conduct exact locations.
“Locations of individuals based upon approximation can be highly incriminating as it can put a suspect near a crime scene at or around the time it is believed the crime was committed,” Stohler wrote.
State prosecutors filed an 18-page opposition to the motion. Assistant District Attorney Melissa Wininger-Howard said Bucknall has been with the Technical Crimes Unit since 2008 and is certified in cell phone technology and forensic data recovery.
Wininger-Howard said Bucknall was not called as an expert witness in Almandinger’s trial but instead was a “hybrid witness” because of the “combination of facts the witness has observed…and the witness’s specialized knowledge in how a cellular phone connects with a cellular tower.”
She said Bucknall used call detail records (CDR) but will not be asked to explain how the record created the map nor educate the jury “on how to interpret the CDR or on the science behind cell towers.”
Johnson’s evidentiary hearing is scheduled for August 14 and 15. Jury selection for his trial is expected to begin at the end of October.
Co-defendants Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfo will go to trial in early 2019.
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