CHEYENNE — Laramie County District Attorney Sylvia Hackl believes technology — specifically video cameras — played a huge role in convicting a 17-year-old in the drive-by killing of a teen girl last April.
Johnny Angel Muñoz was found guilty of second-degree murder last month for shooting and killing Baylee Carabajal-Clark, who was sitting on the edge of a basketball court at a Cheyenne park watching her friends and relatives play ball after a family barbecue when the drive-by happened.
“We had to place the defendant at the location at that time,” Hackl said about proving the case. “The jury was expecting a smoking gun.”
The gun used in the drive-by was never found, but video from nearby cameras were crucial in proving the state’s case, she told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday.
Hackl said video footage from three cameras helped sway the jury. These included a doorbell camera showing the suspected vehicle that Muñoz fired his weapon from near Lincoln Park, another camera that captured audio from the shooting at the park, and a dash camera from a law enforcement vehicle that later pulled over the vehicle Muñoz was believed to be in at the time.
Hackl said the jury specifically asked to listen to the audio recording of the gunfire while deliberating a verdict.
It’s an example of technology, specifically the proliferation of video, is impacting criminal cases, she said. That includes what juries expect to see as evidence.
“I believe expectations change as technology changes,” she said.
Higher Bar Of Evidence?
Conversely, Hackl believes modern juries and the public now expect some sort of video as a source of evidence in criminal cases because of the popularity of criminal investigation shows like “Law and Order” and the increased presence of cameras in modern society.
She said this can be difficult in cases where there isn’t any video evidence, even if it’s for legitimate reasons such as a police dashboard camera not being available to use at the time of an incident.
“Even if the officer turned in a work order for the dash camera, they see the absence of video as somewhat deliberate,” she said. “Even if there’s a perfectly good reason, I think the jury says they should have been able to see that.”
And unlike TV court dramas, not every case can be neatly wrapped up with a definitive confession or unquestionable forensic evidence.
Even if a body camera or other footage is available from a crime scene, Hackl said it’s not always decipherable or set up in a logical sequence for the viewer to draw a meaningful conclusion from.
“It’s not like watching a TV episode,” she said.
Hackl also warns that as technology improves, the easier it will become to manipulate video and photographic evidence through sources like Photoshop and artificial intelligence. She expects Wyoming’s district courts and the state Supreme Court to tackle these issues at some point in the future.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, but at what point can it be manipulated?” she questioned.
Still For The Best
But overall, Hackl said the proliferation of video surveillance is a positive for law enforcement, even if one camera only shows a single angle of what happened.
She mentioned how video taken from personal cellphones also has been used as evidence.
And video isn’t always used to convict suspects. It also clears them.
A Cheyenne man was cleared of guilt in a car crash last month thanks to the use of the on-board cameras built into his Tesla vehicle, a piece of evidence Hackl said she found “fascinating.”
Although she hasn’t used evidence like those Tesla cams in a case yet, Hackl said she expects to at some point.
“I’m sure we will,” she said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.