On the eve of jury selection, a last-second question about the lawfulness of cell phone tracking could delay the murder trial of Anthony Robertson by months.
Robertson, 22, of Dorchester, is accused of shooting and killing 25-year-old Aaron Wornum in June of 2011, according to the Suffolk County district attorney’s office.
In court on Monday, attorneys debated a series of final motions that set parameters for the trial, which is expected to begin this week. But one question about the admissibility of location data drawn from cell phone towers rose above rote procedure, and the judge’s decision will determine if prosecutors can go forward with the case or will have to ask for a stay in proceedings.
When people uses cell phones, their location is roughly recorded based on what service tower picks up their signal. Police can then use this data to show a person was near a scene when a crime occurred.
Prosecutor David Fredette said cell phone location records show Robertson was near the area when Wornum was shot on Sumner Street on June 26, 2011. He said the data does not pinpoint exactly where a person was, but it is accurate within a radius of about half a mile.
The use of cell phone location data by police has recently emerged as the subject of legal controversy. Currently, police do not need to obtain a search warrant to collect the cell phone records. They merely need to show the information pertains to an ongoing investigation, rather than having to show probable cause, a higher standard required for warrants.
Some people argue that this standard is not high enough, and failing to acquire a warrant to obtain cell phone location data is a violation of personal privacy rights. They say the records essentially allow investigators to access the same information as a GPS tracking device would.
Prosecutors sometimes use cell phone records over a period of weeks or months to build a picture of a suspect’s activities, Fredette said. In the Robertson case, he said, he used cell phone records from June 1 to July 15.
Superior court judges have been split on the issue and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard a case about the cell phone location data last fall. The state’s high court has yet to issue a decision on the matter, leaving Judge Patrick F. Brady on his own to determine if the records are admissible in the Robertson murder trial.
Defense Attorney James Greenberg argued that the cell phone records should be thrown out because police did not obtain a warrant before accessing them. Fredette said the Commonwealth will probably have to ask for a stay, effectively putting the trial on hold, if Brady decides the records are inadmissible. Though prosecutors said they have witnesses who place Robertson at the scene, Fredette said the cell phone data is reliable evidence and is important to the case.
Brady took the matter under advisement and is expected to make a decision Tuesday morning, when the attorneys expect to begin choosing a jury for the case. He said the question coming so soon before trial puts him in a bind.
“I’ve got a case that’s ready for trial,” he said. “Everyone’s geared up. It’s a lot of work to do.”
See press releases from the Suffolk County district attorney’s office below:
Two Arraigned After Indictments in June Homicides
Two men charged in separate homicides this June remain held without bail following their indictments last week and their Superior Court arraignments today, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said.
ANTHONY ROBERTSON (D.O.B. 5/19/91) of Dorchester was formally charged this morning with first-degree murder for the June 26 shooting death of 25-year-old Aaron Wornum. Just a few hours later, LAQUAN MILLER (D.O.B. 5/25/94) of Roslindale was charged with the same offense for the June 5 shooting death of Wilfredo Martinez, 23, and the non-fatal shooting of a second 23-year-old man during the same incident.
Acting on requests by Assistant District Attorney Davide Fredette of Conley’s Homicide Unit, Clerk Magistrate Connie Wong kept in place orders that both men be held without bail as they have been since their previous arraignments in district court.
Speaking at Robertson’s arraignment this morning, Fredette told the court that Wornum and Robertson were known to one another. Wornum had been on his cell phone with a person he was supposed to meet at about 9:00 on the evening he was killed, Fredette said, and phone records show that person to be Robertson.
At about that time, Robertson allegedly drove up to the scene, exited his car, and pulled a gun. He allegedly shot Wornum multiple times, killing him, and stole a gold chain from him.
Just before his death, Wornum is said to have pleaded for his life, saying, “Ant, it doesn’t have to be this way,” or “Ant, you don’t have to do me like this,” Fredette said.
Multiple witnesses have identified Robertson as the shooter, Fredette said.
A few hours later, Fredette recited the facts of the case against Miller, telling the court that Martinez and another man were behind a Brookway Road building shortly after 10:00 p.m. when two other individuals came out from inside that building and opened fire on them. Martinez suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died of his injuries; the second victim survived his injuries but required extensive rehabilitative therapy as a result of them.
Miller was later identified by several individuals as being one of the gunmen, Fredette said. When he spoke to police, Miller allegedly gave multiple alibis that conflicted with one another and the known facts, Fredette said.
The investigation into the identity of the second shooter remains very active even today, Fredette told the court.
Jessica Sheehan is the DA’s victim witness advocate assigned to both cases. Robertson is represented by attorney James Greenberg and will return to court on Oct. 25. Miller is represented by attorney Bruce Carroll and will return to court on Oct. 13.
No Bail in June Slaying on Sumner Street
A Dorchester man was held without bail on a murder charge stemming from the shooting death last month of 25-year-old Aaron Wornum in Dorchester, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said today.
Assistant District Attorney David Fredette of Conley’s Homicide Unit today recommended that ANTHONY ROBERTSON (D.O.B. 5/19/91) be held without bail pending trial; Dorchester District Court Judge Rosalind Miller granted that request.
Fredette told the court that the victim and defendant were known to one another. Phone records obtained by investigators suggest the victim was on his cell phone just before the June 26 shooting, Fredette said, and additional investigation has linked the other phone to the defendant.
Wornum was shot multiple times near the intersection of Sumner and East Cottage streets at about 9:00 that night. He was transported to Boston Medical Center where he died of his injuries.
On Tuesday, amid the ongoing and at times around-the-clock investigation, prosecutors approved a warrant charging Robertson with Wornum’s murder. Late yesterday, members of the Boston Police Fugitive Unit and Youth Violence Strike Force apprehended him at an Arbutus Street residence.
Wornum is represented by attorney James Greenberg. He will return to court on Aug. 15.