An interesting aspect of cell phone ping evidence is the concept that the absence of phone activity by a suspect can be as much an indicator of criminal activity as the use of their phone.
In regard to the instant case, here are some things we might want to consider when examining state’s evidence:
- All this is taking place in 2010 (I had a flip phone then and no texting plan).
- 2010 was in many ways the the dark ages of cell phone usage–iPhones were only a glint in the eye of some Mac geek.
- Data plans were expensive and most phones couldn’t really utilize them anyway.
- Calls and texting were limited, and if you exceeded the amount allotted to your plan, the cost of additional minutes could be quite steep.
- Add to all this that tower coverage was no where near as good as it is now.
- From all I can tell, AT&T didn’t even own towers at this time, in the region this crime takes place in. (Whereas now AT&T has swallowed Cingular and owns Southern Bell and has built numerous towers with plans of building more.)
- A lot has changed in just 7 years. In fact, it might be that compared to now, 2010 was the dark ages of cell phone usage .
In People v Merritt, the state contends (though they don’t exactly spell this out at prelim) that Merritt’s lack of phone usage at the time of the murders was unusual for him.. And that there were times when Merritt may have turned off his phone deliberately so as not to leave a digital trail of his whereabouts. The cellular “blackout” periods might also have been those same times when Merritt accomplished various aspects of his crime that investigators were not able to tie him to directly with physical or other circumstantial evidence.
So given all the above factors, what do these large gaps of inactivity in Merritt’s phone usage, really tell us?
If Merritt’s service wasn’t reliable (AT&T was not known for excellent service in that area, at that specific time), could some of the black-out times be those where he simply was out of reach of an AT&T tower?
Merritt spoke to Joseph McStay as many as 30 times a day. If Joseph was not available, this would naturally decrease the number of calls Merritt made, especially once McStay’s voicemail became full.
From February 4 thru February 6 Merritt’s call patterns seem somewhat consistent. (see bottom meme). His calls cease in the late afternoon, early evening and there is usually one call around 9 or 10. Then no calls until the next morning. It will be for the defense to let the jury know what this means. If it means anything.