Cellphone Text Messages Used As Incriminating Evidence Even After Being Deleted

Gadgets Cyberlaw Software / Open Source

The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), has an interesting Q&A with a company called Paraben out of Pleasant Grove, Utah. The company makes software for law enforcement (or whoever) to retrieve text messages or photos from cellphones. CEO Amber Schroader has some interesting stories of what people are saying with their cellphones nowadays, which includes crime confessions:

People might be surprised to hear that a record of a text message stays in a phone even after it has been sent or even deleted. How long do old messages remain in a phone’s memory?

It depends on how active a texter you are. For average users, messages will stay a couple of months. For more-active messagers, it might be just two weeks.

What sorts of things have police found when they’ve looked through the text messages of suspects?

In one case, they found a confession to a murder. The case involved a boyfriend and girlfriend in their early 20s. She dumped him, and he apparently decided he couldn’t live without her. So he kidnapped her, and killed her. But when he was done, he sent a message to a friend of his that said, “I can’t believe I just killed her.” The guy at first told police that he wasn’t involved in the killing, but after the police showed him the message they had recovered, he pleaded guilty. He is now serving a life sentence.

Why do people say things like that in messages?

One reason might be that people have come to take texting for granted, so it becomes like a confessional.

Do these sorts of incidents happen a lot?

There have been other cases, too. In one other case, an older man was accused of stalking a 13-year-old girl. He claimed that he didn’t know her, but the girl had a phone. And when police looked through it, they found numerous explicit messages from the man. It turns out the phone had been his main way of communicating with the girl.

Something similar happened in a sexual-harassment case. A man was harassing a woman, and she reported it. When we recovered her phone, there were messages from her to him saying, “Please stop doing this.” But he continued to call her. He ended up getting fired.

Are there utilities that people can use to clean out their phones to eliminate this sort of incriminating information?

Not really. Phones are actually very difficult to deal with. Even in the field of forensics, it’s considered a unique specialty. That’s good news for law enforcement, since there aren’t easy tools to destroy evidence. And if consumers are worried about this, they should remember that while digital evidence can prove guilt, it can also prove innocence. If you’re innocent, it can be your best friend.

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