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Google: Witness for the Prosecution

Robert James Petrick, 51, didn't exactly point a Web browser to the Internet search engine Google and type in "how do you kill your wife?"

But he came pretty close, say prosecutors in Durham County, N.C.

Petrick used Google to search the Internet for references to "body decomposition," "rigor mortis," "neck" and "break" in the days before and after he murdered his wife, Janine Sutphen, then dumped her body in a lake, said Durham County assistant prosecutor Mitchell Garrell.

By "Googling" his wife's murder, Petrick was inadvertently supporting the prosecutor's time line of events.

For instance, the jury learned that Petrick searched for and downloaded a topical map of a lake bed in the days before he dumped the woman's remains in the same body of water.

"We were prepared to go forward with prosecution anyway, and would have succeeded, but no doubt this stuff helped," Garrell said. "We were able to tell the jury things like, 'Here's when she's last seen, and here he's downloading a map of the lake she's found in.'"

The Petrick case goes beyond serving as a textbook example of how police and prosecutors incorporate someone's Internet habits into their investigations and prosecutions.

Moreover, it shows how police and prosecutors now are routinely making a suspect's search terms a witness for the prosecution.

What's causing concerns among privacy advocates is that a listing of all the search terms someone uses is a unique, and wide-open, window into their political and religious beliefs, daily activities, investments, and identity, more so than an e-mail or a Web page they might have downloaded.

The thought of someone's brain blueprint in the hands of investigators is causing alarms, mainly because the federal courts are unclear on whether search terms are meant to be kept private, and therefore off-limits to an entity like the police.

Complicating matters is the need to balance privacy rights and allowing investigators to adapt their techniques to the new technologies that their suspects use.

"If search terms aren't part of the routine now for everybody in law enforcement, they soon will be," said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which provides commentary on technology-related law. "That raises questions about privacy and how far police can go. What you Google for defines you. Your search logs are the closest thing to a printout of your brain that we have."

Garrell defended his use of search terms as evidence; volunteering several times during a recent interview that his office and the law enforcers it works with always pay the utmost attention to privacy rights.

Whether they should be allowed to or not, search terms can help prove a case.

Petrick's Google activity was introduced at trial to convince the jury of the timeline for Petrick's murderous activity, said Garrell.

It helped; the jury found Petrick guilty of first-degree murder after just two hours of deliberation last Tuesday.

It was Garrell's first time using search terms to bolster his case, and the first time for anyone in his legal circle.

And he's prepared to do it again, when appropriate.

Garrell's "Eureka moment" suggests there are still legal circles where using search terms as evidence has yet to take hold, but will soon.

"We were able to say to the jury things like 'She was last seen on this day, and he puts this search term in, or he's researching Falls Lake [where Sutphen's body was found] just before reporting her missing," Garrell said.

Petrick, acting as his own attorney, claimed prosecutors couldn't tie him to the Internet searches.

Google, the company, had no idea what was happening. All of the evidence was culled from the 14 computers seized in the case.

But it's the same kind of questions the company's been facing for years. In general, a spokesperson for the company said the search provider, the most popular in the world, said it will comply with valid search warrants, court orders or subpoenas seeking personal information.

The spokesperson said Google does not discuss specific law enforcement requests publicly.

Check out eWEEK.com's Search Center for the latest news, views and analysis on enterprise search technology.

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