Two famous cases where digital evidence was key
From smartphone evidence to embedded digital data, some have called the period we’re in “a golden age of evidence” due to the variety and volume of digital data that reveals not only conversations, but locations, timelines, and sometimes, photos and videos. Ahead, we dive into two famous cases where the digital evidence that was uncovered played a key role in the outcome of the case.
Paul Ceglia vs Mark Zuckerberg
In 2010, Paul Ceglia, a wood pellet salesman from Wellsville, New York, sued both Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, alleging that a 2003 contract he wrote to hire Zuckerberg to do computer programming for his company, Street Fax, entitled him to 50% of Facebook. Zuckerberg, a student at Harvard at the time, had responded to an ad on Craigslist published by Ceglia. Zuckerberg was paid $1000 for his work. The copy of the contract filed by Ceglia in his lawsuit showed that he made also a $1000 investment in “The Page Book,” and Ceglia’s suit claimed that that seed investment entitled him to a 50% share of the company. Ceglia’s team produced a series of emails between the two that appeared to show the agreement to the 50/50 share.
A key turning point in the case happened when the courts allowed Facebook to conduct forensic testing on Ceglia’s computer, against Ceglia’s wishes. During testing, Facebook found the original contract document embedded in the electronic data on Ceglia’s hard drive from 2004. While observers had started to believe in Ceglia’s case, the original contract never mentions Facebook or “The Page Book,” but instead only mentions Ceglia’s company Street Fax.
The forensic data also showed evidence of the use of six USB devices — claimed to be lost by Ceglia — and found in at least one of the devices was a folder called “Facebook Files” and an image called “Zuckerberg Contract page1.tif,” which matched the page of the contract Ceglia used in his suit. Facebook argued that that particular contract page was forged to support Ceglia’s claim.
Forensic experts also analyzed Zuckerberg’s email account from his time at Harvard, and found no signs of the email chain Ceglia produced alleging an agreement between him and Zuckerberg to share the company 50/50.
The files ended up serving as a “smoking gun,” leading to the case against Facebook being dismissed. It also led federal authorities to arrest Ceglia on charges that he had been attempting to defraud Facebook for billions of dollars.
Murder of Miami art dealer, Clifford Lambert
On September 7, 2012, co-defendants Daniel Carlos Garcia and Kaushal Niroula were convicted of the stabbing death of 74-year-old art dealer Clifford Lambert. Together the pair planned a con of Lambert. Garcia had obtained information on Lambert, including his phone number and address, and Niroula called to pose as an attorney representing the estate of May Department Stores Co. heiress Florene May Schoenborn. On the call, Niroula “informed” Lambert he had inherited some valuable artwork from Schoenborn’s estate.
The two made arrangements, and along with a Bay Area attorney, Mike Replogle, Niroula drove to Lambert’s Palm Springs home. While there, he also let in two other accomplices, Migual Bustamante and his roommate, Craig McCarthy, one of whom stabbed Lambert to death. The foursome then proceeded to stuff Lambert’s body in his own car, drive into the desert, and bury the body.
Later that day, Garcia began using Lambert’s debit card. In the days that followed, Garcia and Niroula opened a new Wells Fargo bank account using Replogle’s identity and account information. Then Replogle, posing as Lambert, gave San Francisco art dealer Russell Manning power of attorney over Lambert’s accounts and estate, then proceded to wire nearly $200,000 from Lambert to the new account. The following day, Niroula wired $30,000 to Bustamante and Manning wrote Replogle a check for more than $15,000, draining Lambert’s original account.
During the trial, the prosecution hired Jonathan Zdziarski, a digital forensics researcher (also known as the hacker, “Nerve Gas”). Garcia was attempting to represent himself, and was one of the last of the defendants to be tried. His argument was based around an accusation that the police framed him by “inserting texts on his phone,” Zdriarski told Fortune.
However, through digital forensics, Zrdriarski was able to access Garcia’s phone and not only prove that there had been no tampering, but also uncover the texts that revealed an order to murder Lambert — which led to his conviction.