Who Said That?

The Long Journey of Voice Identification and Analysis in the Courts

Paul Gordon Cary was charged with murdering a young woman by stabbing her multiple times with a large knife in the kitchen of her home in Plainfield, New Jersey. The year was 1966 and I was a young detective in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office assigned to help Assistant Prosecutor Michael Diamond with trial preparation of the case.  Of critical importance was identifying the adult male who called the police dispatcher reporting the victim injured and needing help.  Given the timeline, only the killer or another adult male at the crime scene could have made that call.  Other trace evidence also pointed to Cary, but proving he made that phone call would go a long way towards making the prosecution’s case.

A new science had been developing since the 1940’s at Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, NJ using spectrographic analysis of voice and speech patterns that supposedly could match a person’s voice recording to a recorded exemplar.  It was called Voiceprint Identification and, if accepted by the New Jersey Court, would bring further evidence to bear against our defendant.  This new science had not been heard by New Jersey Courts, so a Frye hearing was ordered by Judge Barger to determine if our expert witness would be allowed to testify in front of the jury.

Mike Diamond and I met with Lawrence Kersta, our expert witness, at his laboratory in Somerville, NJ.  Mr. Kersta, an electronics engineer, physicist and former employee of Bell Labs, demonstrated his voiceprint machine.  It was amazing.  We were enthusiastic about our chances, but Kersta knew it would be an uphill battle because Dr. Peter Ladefoged had been engaged by the defense.

Dr. Ladefoged, an associate professor of phonetics, University of California, Los Angeles, had testified persuasively against the scientific reliability of voiceprints in other cases. In fact, these two had met in the courtroom before, so the battle lines were drawn. Kersta’s voiceprint identification innovation had gained some support in judicial tribunals and was accepted when he qualified as an expert in spectrographic speech analysis in a White Plains, NY case.  He gave expert testimony in a U.S. Air Force Court Martial, as well.

Nevertheless, Dr. Ladefoged testified in the Cary case that positive voice identification was not yet scientifically accepted nor adequately tested at that time.  Without going into the minutiae of the Court’s decision, Judge Barger ruled that Mr. Kersta’s testimony would not be admissible based upon the failure of the prosecution to show “general scientific acceptance of the process...at this time.”  The judge admitted that he was impressed with Mr. Kersta and voiceprint analysis and believed that in the future it would be scientifically accepted; but he was not ready to break new ground.  Cary was convicted on other evidence, and voiceprint would have its day...but not that day.  Over time, Mr. Kersta and voiceprint analysis were vindicated and most states (including Florida) now accept its scientific value, in various measure.  Even Dr. Ladefoged softened his resistance as time went by and admitted voiceprint  has its place “...though limited” in the courts.  For years, however, the two expert combatants went on to joust in other courtrooms around the country.

 Lawrence Kersta’s contribution to the judicial system is immeasurable. His testimony convicted some and exonerated others.  Voice analysis became accepted science around the world, even in the venerable halls of our own F.B.I.  Today it is applied in terrorist identification and anytime the question of “Who said that?” comes up.  Mr. Kersta went on to form the International Association of Voice Identification and was a respected scientific innovator up until his death, a resident of Miami, FL, at the age of 86 years in 1994.  That same year Michael K. Diamond was appointed Judge of the New Jersey Superior Court after a distinguished career in private practice.  He has since retired and is affiliated with the Mandelbaum Salsburg Law Firm in West Orange, NJ.  Dr. Ladefoged died suddenly on January 24, 2006, at the age of 80, in London while changing flights on his way home from field work in India.

For me, the Cary case was an awakening.  It was a privilege to have been there at the beginning of voice identification’s long journey towards scientific acceptance in the courts. This is a perfect example of the persistent advancement of science in conjunction with the evolution of our judicial system.  In time, the courts do catch up to the science...but with due caution.

The Cary case was my first experience with expert witnesses.  Since then I have located and qualified expert witnesses, as well as refuted their anticipated testimony by pointing out their own conflicting past deposition and trial testimony for my attorney clients.  What is most fascinating about the battle of the experts is watching two brilliant, educated and dedicated scientists, faced with the same set of facts, arrive at diametrically opposing opinions.  It is truly an intellectual duel worth watching!

Dave Watts is a Certified Legal Investigator in New Jersey. For over 30 years he has conducted all types of investigations for law firms, businesses and individuals. He and Linda, his wife of 50 years, live in both Califon, NJ and Sanibel, FL. He can be reached at (800) 950-4808 or abs@alliedbizsolutions.com.

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