Technology On Trial
Presenting Murder Without Gore
By David Horrigan
THE DAY after Christmas 2000, Michael "Mucko" McDermott, a software tester at Edgewater Technology Inc., got up from his desk, and shot and killed seven colleagues in one of the worst mass murders in Massachusetts history.
McDermott, 42, insisted that he was using his three guns -- an AK-47 assault rifle, a shotgun and a pistol -- to shoot Nazis, under instructions from a heavenly voice. Among those killed were several co-workers involved in processing garnishment of his wages pursuant to an Internal Revenue Service levy for $5,586 in back taxes.
The challenge for McDermott's defense attorney (who would mount an insanity defense) and for prosecutors (who would argue that McDermott acted in cold blood) was to convey the factual and legal issues, while avoiding a gruesome spectacle for the jurors, witnesses and bereaved family members participating in the trial of Commonwealth v. McDermott, No. 2001-163, Middlesex Co., Mass. Superior Ct.
Jury selection began on April 1, 2002.
The modern offices of Edgewater Technology, an Internet consulting firm, are housed in a renovated old mill in Wakefield, near Boston. The office is long and narrow, with more than 100 cubicles in a building longer than a football field -- a difficult floor plan to convey to a jury. Complicating matters: Edgewater remodeled the office after the tragedy.
While considering how prosecutors could describe McDermott's movements to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Loughlin remembered a Time magazine article illustrating the location of the various offices in the West Wing of the White House. Loughlin thought a similar model could be useful in McDermott.
He tossed out the idea to Paul Melaragni, director of communications for the Middlesex District Attorney Office. Melaragni, the D.A.'s in-house tech guru, had recently attended a seminar on trial animation. With Loughlin's idea of a model and Melaragni's interest in animation, the pair thought they were on to something.
Convincing the Bosses
Thomas O'Reilly, the first-chair litigator in the McDermott case, is the chief of the Middlesex D.A. Office's Lowell division. A former Marine officer and State Department special agent, O'Reilly was not exactly thrilled with the Loughlin-Melaragni plan, at least not at first blush. He described his initial reaction as, "Whoa! I have problems sending e-mail."
But after the pitch, O'Reilly agreed to at least consider the plan. "I'll see how it works, but I won't use it if I'm not comfortable with it," he told his colleagues.
And as a public agency, cost is always an important consideration.
Martha Coakley, the elected District Attorney of Middlesex County, said she realized that using technology could reduce courtroom time, and save money. The gravity of murder cases is also a consideration in Coakley's spending decisions, she said. Coakley gave a green light. With the bosses on board, the prosecution team interviewed different animation firms, ultimately retaining the Boston office of Animation Technologies.
Detail from one of the Edgewater office animations
"Their presentation was first rate, they were right across the river, and they were willing to work with us on the price because they knew how important this trial was," said Melaragni.
Preparing for Trial
While the prosecution was preparing the trial animation, defense attorney Kevin Reddington, a solo from Brockton, Mass., evaluated his own technology choices.
"I like the high-tech stuff, but it's not always right for the case," he said. For example, over-illustration can damage a criminal defense, he explained, noting that illustrations of weapons, hair or graphic photos can be dangerous. In one high-profile case, Reddington commissioned a computer animation display, but ditched it.
"I saw the animation, and realized it could actually hurt my client," he said.
Boston Law Tribune
Reddington's standard technology gear includes his Toshiba Satellite laptop and a "Communicator" presentation system from DOAR, of Lynbrook, N.Y.
Animation Technologies' managing director Shaun Hutchinson (an attorney who no longer practices) and project manager Peter Lawson developed the prosecution's animation.
The prosecutors had three goals, Hutchison explained. First, and most importantly, they wanted to illustrate the complex design of the floor plan, to show that the bearish Navy veteran McDermott went through the office methodically, not in an irrational rampage.
Because of the redesign of the office, when the jury took a site visit, the office would not look the same as it did on the day of the incident. So the second goal was "to recreate what no longer existed," Hutchinson said.
Finally, the animation needed to illustrate the crime scene, yet minimize the gruesome nature of the violence, to avoid prejudice.
The animation allowed jurors to see the complexities of the cubicle area, the positions of the victims and McDermott's movements during the incident. In addition, Edgewater's Dec. 26, 2000 floor plan was recreated for the trial.
McDermott had a history of depression and a personality disorder, and had tried to commit suicide in 1987.
O'Reilly said that the defense's strategy of seeking an insanity defense played a role in the prosecution's technology planning.
"We didn't want jurors to see a graphic exit wound, and think that McDermott had to have been crazy do such a thing," O'Reilly said. Lawson designed the animation so that the victims appeared as colored icons.
In developing the animation, Lawson used Discreet's 3D Studio Max, from Montreal's Autodesk Inc., for three-dimensional modeling and architectural rendering. He also used Macromedia Director 8.5, from San Francisco-based Macromedia Inc., for interactive programming. The interactivity of the system allowed the D.A.'s evidence, including photos and documents, to be incorporated into the presentation.
The animation system in the courtroom consisted of two Dell Optiplex GX-150 CPUs, from Dell Computer Corp., one primary and one backup. The main displays were two Pioneer PDP-V402 40-inch plasma monitors, from Tokyo-based Pioneer Corp.
Audio-visual equipment included a JVC Visual Presenter AV-P700, from JVC America, of Wayne, N.J., and a Panasonic AG-1330 SuperDrive VCR, from Matsushita Electric Corp. of America.
Because prosecutors wanted the security of low-tech audio for the presentation of a voicemail recording of the gunshots, they used a Marantz PMD-221 audio cassette player, from Superscope Technologies Inc., of Aurora, Ill.
Even the news media coverage generated technology decisions for the litigators. The trial garnered massive media attention, including coverage by Court TV, which had a direct feed from the courtroom.
In order to control and, if necessary, cut the feed to Court TV (which was done on a few occasions), the news feed was equipped with a Kramer 6X1 A/V switcher from Kramer Electronics Ltd., of Jerusalem, Israel. Prior to the trial, the parties agreed on when coverage would be restricted (i.e., during presentation of autopsy photos, etc.)
After two and a half days of deliberations, on April 24, 2002, McDermott was found guilty on all seven counts, and the jury determined that he was sane at the time of the shootings.
Superior Court Judge R. Malcolm Graham sentenced McDermott to seven consecutive life terms, one for each victim. There is no death penalty in Massachusetts.
David Horrigan is assistant editor of The National Law Journal and contributing editor of Law Technology News.