Police blotter: Enhanced video used to convict arsonist

Court rules on whether a digitally enhanced videotape can be used against a woman accused of burning down her employer's offices.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
"Police blotter" is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: A woman convicted of arson appealed the verdict, saying a surveillance video used as evidence should not have been digitally enhanced.

When: 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on April 19.

Outcome: Conviction upheld.

What happened, according to court documents: On the night of Dec. 29, 1999, a fire destroyed a building owned by Susan Anne Seifert's employer, for whom she worked as an accountant. A surveillance videotape, recovered from the rubble, shows a dark image of a person entering the area where the fire started and then smoke emerging afterwards.

Jack Hunter, a recently retired employee of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, digitally enhanced the images taken from the videotape by brightening them. The trial judge permitted the enhanced video to be introduced as evidence in Seifert's trial, saying it "does not change the image, but assists the jury in its observation and viewing of the image."

Hunter testified about the steps he took, saying he did not brighten only the image of the person. Rather, he simultaneously brightened the image of the suspect and the surrounding area, which preserved their relative brightness.

The enhanced video seemed to show the arsonist dressed the same way as Seifert was (as captured by another camera 35 minutes before). Both individuals had short gray hair and were wearing light pants, a dark jacket, and a white shirt with a dark emblem on the front.

Seifert's attorney claimed Hunter decided "which shadows to erase" and altered the image too much. The appeals court disagreed, however, saying the trial judge had acted reasonably and upheld the conviction.

Excerpt from the court's opinion: (click here for PDF) "Seifert concedes that the evidence supports that the building was burned intentionally. However, she contends that the evidence does not show she did it. According to Seifert, the evidence was not sufficient to prove that she "had a motive to burn the Co-op down or that she was more than merely present prior to the fire."

"However, the jury heard evidence that, after the fire, Seifert pleaded guilty to stealing approximately $2,500 to $5,000 from the company over a five-year period. The government maintained that Seifert started the fire to cover up her theft. Shortly before the fire, the company discovered a $54,605.89 balance in the company's cash-clearing account, representing revenue not deposited in the bank.

"Seifert, the company's bookkeeper, was aware that an auditor had been working for weeks to reconcile the account. Seifert knew that the company's financial records were located in the office area of the building--where the fire started. That evidence, combined with the video, supports the jury's verdict."