RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — With cameras around almost every corner, and in nearly every pocket, two top prosecutors in metro Richmond admit that video evidence presented in criminal cases can make or break a defense.
Leading up to Wednesday’s guilty verdict for three men facing murder charges after the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Aubrey in Georgia, cell phone video taken by one of the defendants showed the men approaching the 25-year-old black man before a fatal shot was fired.
Drone video showing Kyle Rittenhouse being chased in Kenosha, Wisconsin before he shot and killed two men was the backdrop of his self-defense case.
Two recent trials, two different outcomes, two crucial videos.
“Video is only as good as the video is good,” Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin told 8News.
McEachin and Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor said benefits of video evidence outweigh the hurdles they might present, while cautioning people that video might not tell the full tale.
“Even if we feel like we are seeing or are capturing this 30 second or moment in time or two minutes or eight minutes and 47 seconds, does that still capture the entire episode?” Taylor asked.
Video quality and witness accounts come into play, too.
While both prosecutors acknowledge images increase the story telling, and facts of the case, McEachin said not every piece of video evidence can be admitted into a case.
“There has to be a foundation to get that video evidence in the court, and the creator of that video evidence, the video has to be authenticated,” McEachin said.
Defense attorneys like 8News Legal Analyst Russ Stone say video can help clear someone’s charges.
“If my client wasn’t there, and my client is innocent, the video shows that,” Stone said.
Taylor said there have been numerous occasions when video was discovered, and cases were ultimately dropped.
While witness cell phone and security video is handy, all three say the overwhelming majority of video presented comes from police body-worn cameras.
Often requested by the public and journalists, police video is frequently denied.
Many responses to Freedom of Information Act requests for body-worn video go something like this: “the investigation is ongoing.”
When it comes to recent officer-involved incidents in Richmond and Henrico, both McEachin and Taylor gave 8News a similar response. The videos will unlikely be immediately released.
8News also asked McEachin and Taylor if they’ve ever shared their opinions with police about whether to release a video.
“I haven’t had a reason to do that yet,” McEachin said, while Taylor offered, “it’s appropriate to have that conversation with your head law-enforcement agency before you just start releasing things. Particularly, if you’re releasing something that may not be particularly positive for public safety in general. Not positive to my office, not positive for law enforcement, but again, balancing that notion with the transparency policy.“
However, it seems often prosecutors and police find the balance is on the side of not releasing video.
Taylor and McEachin said some reasons behind the decision to withhold a public release of body worn video is to not influence potential jurors before they are presented all applicable evidence during trial.