Pacemaker Data Used To Charge Alleged Arsonist

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

placemaker-implant-heartWe have now another novel example concerning the use of seemingly private data being used against criminal defendants and potentially in the future other members of the public.

A Middletown, Ohio homeowner is accused in the arson of his own home, reportedly causing four hundred thousand dollars in damage and the loss of a personal pet. Arson investigators became suspicious about the cause of the fire from inconsistent statements made along with finding multiple origins of the fire. Police retrieved the recording of the 9-1-1 call the defendant made reporting the conflagration. During this he made mention of having an “artificial heart.” But what probably seemed ordinary for the defendant led to a trove of information used as incriminating data.

His pacemaker telemetry data became a source of incriminating evidence.


 

Network World reports that in September of 2016 a residential fire broke out, advancing rapidly to fully engulfed the structure. While the homeowner escaped the flames his pet cat did not.

One month later, fifty-nine-year-old homeowner Ross Compton was arrested and charged with felony aggravated arson and insurance fraud.

Investigators placed heavy emphasis on Compton’s “conflicting statements” In the 9-1-1 call, he claimed that “everyone” was out of the house but later dispatchers heard him yell to others to “get out now”. During the call he sounded out of breath, resulting from what he said was from having to pack suitcases, breaking out glass, and tossing the suitcases out a window.

He claimed to have an “artificial heart”.

Ross Compton
Ross Compton

Not believing Compton’s claim of being out of breath from exertion in his hastily removal of items from the house, police obtained a search warrant to retrieve data from the pacemaker emplaced within Compton’s body. The warrant specified as items to be retrieved, viz “Compton’s heart rate, pacer demand and cardiac rhythms before, during and after the fire.”

From the data retrieved, Middletown Police consulted the services of a cardiologist to interpret the telemetry and determine of the pacemaker and heart function were commensurate with the exertion Compton reportedly experienced during the incident. The cardiologist determined that “it is highly improbable Mr. Compton would have been able to collect, pack and remove the number of items from the house, exit his bedroom window and carry numerous large and heavy items to the front of his residence during the short period of time he was indicated due to his medical conditions.”

Police stated they believed the pacemaker telemetry to be a significant factor in obtaining an indictment. Other alleged evidence included locating several gasoline residues in different parts of the residence along with traces of gasoline on Compton’s person.

While I commend investigators for arriving at this interesting investigatory technique I have concerns of the possibility for self-incrimination of heart patients will be more damaging, all things considered. While I opined the self-incrimination argument to this data retrieval to be rather weak, from a Doctor / Patient perspective such a defense may gain credibility.

In this case, a device mounted within the body of an individual is designed to generate data that will certainly constitute a communication between a cardiologist, or other specialist, and the defendant patient. But from a public health perspective potential damage will be greater.

Should a patient be warned that his pacemaker will generate information that could be used against them in a criminal trial? And, if so how many patients unquestionably in need of an implanted heart device will elect instead to forego such as procedure, and as a result risk suffering a cardiac event that could be debilitating or fatal.

A pacemaker’s telemetry was never intended to be a dictation device to provide to law enforcement, though on balance medical records are commonly subpoenaed or searched pursuant to a search warrant.

Has privacy become so fragile in the United States that one’s own heartbeat can be intruded upon by the state? I certainly hope that other centuries old crime scene investigation tools can deliver results before such intrusions become common.

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

19 thoughts on “Pacemaker Data Used To Charge Alleged Arsonist

  1. It seems like technology is advancing before our laws and ethics considerations have a chance to get their pants on.

    This medical data does seem like it would fall under HIPPA. And if it doesn’t, then it needs to be disclosed.

    I’m glad this guy was caught, however. Anytime someone claims they had time to pack a suitcase during a house fire, it’s probably arson. And how cruel, to pack his things but not secure his cat before he burned his house down, with people still inside it apparently. He could have burned down his neighborhood, risked injury to the fire department, and it’s theft from the insurance company.

    But I live in CA, a drought state besieged by manmade fires each and every year. Fire bugs hold a special place in hell for us Californians.

  2. It seems to me the physician could tell you if he was physically able to do all that. If he on disability because of his heart that would give a clue also that he may not be able to. Personally, I do not see any correlation between his pacemaker and the action. I think it’s wrong to investigate a pacemaker.

  3. “Has privacy become so fragile in the United States that one’s own heartbeat can be intruded upon by the state?”

    I think I disagree with the implications of the statement. It seems to me that what data is revealed is less important than the circumstances under which the data is revealed. In this case a warrant was obtained.

    Further, we already make it possible to obtain data such as blood and DNA samples. This situation is a bit different. But it does not seem to be a major departure from how we treat other data that can be obtained from the body.

  4. If I were on the jury I don’t think I would put much stock in the pacemaker info. It seems somewhat speculative to say that he could or couldn’t have exerted himself to the extent he did based on pacemaker readings. I nonetheless would convict him, based on the presence of gas on his clothes and several places in the house, as well as the fact that he packed suitcases during a house fire. A normal person would have gotten out of the house as fast as possible, stopping only to assist other persons and pets in getting out. He should also have been charged with cruelty to animals.

  5. I have investigated many arson cases. A pet dying in the fire is often a sign that the fire was not set by the owner. I worked arson cases criminally working for a prosecutors office. They are difficult to prove. What usually occurs is the prosecutor declines prosecution but assists the insurance investigation. I’ve worked those cases over 3 decades. More likely than not is a much easier burden of proof rather than beyond a reasonable doubt.

    While the cause and origin investigators like to portray what they do as science, it is really a craft. Good cause and origin people put together many pieces of the puzzle. Rarely are all pieces available. The good craftsman doesn’t guild the lily. I would need more information to opine on this. But, I am troubled by the intrusiveness of using this heart data.

    • If you have not already seen the excellent episode entitled “Point of Origin” from the “Forensic Files” series, then as an arson investigator you will surely appreciate this episode demonstrating that such investigations are part science, part art, and part craftsmanship:

      • Ralph, Thanks much! I was not precise in my wording. Indeed, there is science involved. But, unlike DNA, hair, etc. there is not certitude. This video you linked shows the puzzle pieces of which I spoke. I’m not a cause and origin guy. You see, many of these cause and origin people are not particularly good interviewing witnesses. They love crawling around in the fire rubble but not talking w/ people. So, I’m hired to do that.

        What few people realize is that a good % of fires are litigated via subrogation. A fire occurs on an insured building. Cause and origin people are called in to determine the cause. If arson is ruled out, then what was the cause? Electrical is often the cause, but there are others. One of the biggest $ cases I worked was an $80 million cold storage warehouse fire back in the 90’s. It’s famous in Madison since it created a waist deep river of grease that flowed for blocks. The warehouse was filled w/ Oscar Mayer hotdogs and cold cuts[they had a plant a few miles away], ice cream, government cheese, etc. We found the cause to be a malfunctioning robotic forklift. Electrical and mechanical engineers assisted in the investigation. There are engineers who make a very good living as expert witnesses in fire subrogation cases.

        • Yes, Nick, many pieces of the puzzle in the case depicted in the above “Point of Origin” epsisode. In the novel mentioned in the episode, in which art imitates life, the protagonist/arson in the novel is named Aaron Stiles. That name was apparently an anagram and when the letters are rearranged spells “I set L.A. arson.” Not likely to be a coincidence.

    • Would you think ‘the pet dying in the fire’, would have crossed the perp’s
      Mind to make the arson look real?

      Or do you think he was not much
      Of a cat lover, or it was a former wife/girlfriends cat.

      • Ter ber, Very good! When a pet dies in a house fire but we think it’s arson, I will investigate information about the pet. How long did the owner have this pet? Were there other pets that survived? How old was the pet? Maybe it was on its last leg anyway. There are many variables. A pet dying or surviving is not dispositive, but is a puzzle piece.

  6. Nothing particularly unusual about using a pacemaker’s data as potential evidence in a criminal case. Any device that records information or data pertinent to a criminal case is fair game for use in an investigation and in a potential prosecution of a crime. The fact that the device is in the body of the suspect doesn’t make any difference.

    While the pacemaker’s reading as a source of evidence may appear unusual to a lay person, fiction writers have already imagined how such information could be used in a criminal investigation. A good example of this is a pretty good Columbo episode entitled “How to Dial a Murder,” made in 1978, starring Nicol Williamson as a behavioral psychologist and Peter Falk, of course, as Columbo.

    Williamson’s character concocts the ostensibly perfect crime by training his two dobermans to kill his wife’s lover when he is talking on the telephone with Williamson’s character and is unwittingly coaxed into saying the trigger word that sends the dobermans into a murderous frenzy. The Williamson character’s “perfect” alibi is that he is far away, at his physician’s office, getting an electrocardiogram when he picks up the telephone to call his wife’s lover, who he knows is at the house with the dobermans.

    The story and script by Anthony Lawrence and Tom Lazarus, respectively, includes an excellent resolution in which Columbo wraps up all the evidence, including the electrocardiogram evidence. It’s the first segment in this clip of 7 great Columbo endings:

    However, note that the electrocardiogram data is just one piece of evidence, and by itself would be insufficient for Columbo to prove his case against Williamson’s character.

  7. I do have a problem with packing up stuff. Me, I am just grabbing stuff and taking it outside. The cat is on it’s on. I will take car of the dog.

  8. Great article in this tech quandary world.
    I’m afraid that train has already left the station. We have prosecutors
    Going after innocent people for their
    ‘Thought’ crimes. Even when no crime has been committed.
    We have insurance companies encouraging us to hook up our cars to report to them when we are speeding.
    Did anyone take Progressives offer on that?
    Fascinating, the investigators took the time to get and use the information.

  9. I’m all for using everything but the kitchen sink for criminals.
    However, for the real big fishes, for the most egregious injustices, seems we don’t even have laws?

    • ” … , for the real big fishes, for the most egregious injustices, seems we don’t even have laws?”

      I am not so sure.

      I can’t make the argument. But I wonder if after Enron and the failure of Arthur Anderson there was a change in the approach to prosecution of white collar crime based on the perception that the social cost to prosecuting the big fish were too damaging – better to let the big fish escape than damage a large corporation.

      I can’t prove it is true – but still …

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