New York Times Reports: In Connecticut Murder Case, a Fitbit Is a Silent Witness

By CHRISTINE HAUSER APRIL 27, 2017 The woman shot dead in the basement of her suburban Connecticut home had struggled with an intruder, her husband told the police just before Christmas in 2015. But over time, the story fell apart as investigators began to rely on a silent witness — a Fitbit exercise tracker that recorded the woman’s last movements and may be the key to solving her murder. The case that began at the house of Richard and Connie Dabate in Ellington, a town of about 15,000 people north of Hartford, and unfolded over the last year highlights the latest example of how exercise devices have become increasingly part of investigators’ tool kits. Fastened to the body, the exercise devices have a unique proximity as witnesses. They transmit heartbeats, sleep schedules, locations and distances, documenting their host’s life events, from innocent mishaps to criminal encounters. A Fitbit factored into a Pennsylvania sexual assault case in 2015 and a personal injury case in Canada in 2014. A Garmin Vivosmart GPS recorded a young woman’s struggle with an attacker in a Seattle park in March.

The devices are incorporated alongside the more conventional use of searches of sniffer dogs and gunshot residue tests, both of which came up inconclusive in the Debate case. When Connecticut police arrived at the home on the morning of Dec. 23, 2015, Mr. Dabate spoke of a violent struggle with a masked intruder who zip­tied him to a chair, demanded his wallet and credit cards, cut him with a knife and then fatally shot his wife in the basement, according to an arrest warrant. But over time, the narrative that Mr. Dabate told investigators started to unravel when compared with a timeline pieced together using digital data from the family home, the warrant said.

Most importantly, a Fitbit on Ms. Dabate’s waistband recorded that she had walked 1,217 feet around the house during the time her husband said they were being attacked. The Fitbit showed her last living movement was at 10:05 a.m. Mr. Dabate, 40, was charged in Superior Court in Rockville on April 14 with murder, tampering with evidence and providing false statements, court documents showed, partly based on information from the Fitbit device. He was released on $1 million bond and was expected to return to court this week. His lawyer, Hubert Santos, could not be reached on Thursday. But The Hartford Courant quoted him as saying that Mr. Dabate was “innocent of these charges, and he looks forward to being vindicated after a trial.” As with computers and smartphones before them, the growing popularity of personal exercise trackers has presented lawyers and prosecutors with both privacy challenges and investigative advantages.

In 2014, a Calgary, Alberta, law firm used a Fitbit device as part of a personal injury case to show that their client was less active than she was before a car accident, according to Canadian Lawyer magazine. “It is definitely something we are going to see more of in the future,” said Detective Christopher Jones of the East Lampeter Township Police Department in Pennsylvania in a telephone interview on Thursday. “As people continue to provide more and more personal information through technology, they have to understand we are obligated to find the best evidence, and this technology has become a part of that.”

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