by Maite Amorebieta, Dateline assistant producer
Welcome to the age of cell phone forensics.
More and more it seems cell phone evidence is being used in criminal trials. And in the Piper Rountree case, it was key.
Often, cell phone records are used in court to establish people's movements. How? Well, what most people forget, with all that these devices do these days, is that cell phones are really just two-way radios, albeit sophisticated ones.
Cell phones are constantly communicating with a network, sending pings to the nearest transmission tower, which allows your calls to be routed correctly.
Multiple antennas are tracking your phone's signal, since each tower only covers a few square miles. But, as you move, your call travels with you and is handed off to the base station receiving the strongest signal from your phone. The carrier keeps records of which towers the phone has contacted or pinged, and when. Which means a cell phone's position over time can be tracked within a few hundred yards. In urban areas with many towers, a phone can be tracked almost to the block. And as most phones become equipped with GPS chips, they only need to be turned ON to pinpoint your location in real time!
Technology is so good that hand-offs are unnoticed. But, the price we pay is that our phone calls leave a trail.
And the trail left by Piper Rountree's cell phone threatened to convict her.
On the day of Fred Jablin's murder, lead detective Coby Kelley got a warrant for Piper's cell phone records. Within hours, the police were able to place that phone in the Richmond area at the time of Fred's murder and then tracked it heading east on I-64 toward Norfolk airport.
Then, the phone stopped communicating. But, once it was out of the dead zone, the phone records placed Piper's phone in Baltimore. Upon further investigation, police learned that a passenger with the last name of 'Rountree' was ticketed on a flight from Baltimore to Texas that very afternoon. However, the ticket happened to be in the name of Piper's sister-- Tina.
Piper would later say that her phone was used by several people, including Tina.
About 14 hours before the murder, police say Piper called her 12 year old son, and told him that she was in Texas. This was at a time when her cell phone was pinging towers in Virginia.
Could Tina have actually been on the phone with Piper's son? While Piper says that people often confuse her voice for Tina's, the prosecution argued a son would know his own mother's voice.
The jurors we interviewed believed Piper spoke to her son that Friday night. And to them, that phone call put Piper in Richmond that Friday, leading them to the ultimate conclusion that she was also lying in wait to shoot Fred Jablin in his Hearthglow Lane driveway early that Saturday morning before the sun came up.