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N.Y. / Region

In Domestic Abuse, Digital Photos Can Say More Than Victims

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Polaroid photographs, like these, are being used less often in domestic violence cases. Prosecutors say digital photos are clearer, last longer and are more easily shared with other investigators.

Published: May 7, 2007

Her body was crisscrossed with his rage. And after she slipped off her clothes, wincing, the police officer photographed every welt. The bruises marbling her upper arm. The places where her skin broke. Her striated back, which looked as if it had been flogged with a cat o’ nine tails.

In the first raw hours after the attack, the 39-year-old woman, a mother of five, tearfully told the police that her husband had whipped her with a cable. She would later recant her story, and say she was suffering from a skin condition caused by asbestos, a story that convinced no one.

But the Queens district attorney’s office pressed forward with the prosecution anyway, armed with the damning digital photographs. Even though the victim refused to testify, her husband was convicted in 2005 and got a one-year prison term, largely, prosecutors believe, because of the pictures.

Providing digital cameras to the police is revolutionizing the prosecution of domestic violence in New York City, according to district attorneys, victim advocates and forensic technicians.

In Queens, the first borough to use the technology, prosecutors say there has been a notable increase in conviction rates since the police there began taking digital photos at domestic violence scenes about five years ago.

In 2002, the first full year digital cameras were used in Queens, prosecutors saw a spike in felony domestic violence convictions. They said 81 percent of the 474 felony domestic violence cases resulted in convictions, compared with 52 percent of the 437 domestic violence cases in 2000, when the police still used Polaroids, which yielded poorer quality, darker, grainy images that tended to fade.

For misdemeanor domestic violence cases, 60 percent of the 3,948 cases ended in convictions in 2002, compared with 51 percent of the 4,013 misdemeanor cases in 2000.

Digital cameras have now been placed in all of the city’s 76 precincts and nine public housing police stations; as of last year, there were at least two in each station house, according to Chief Kathy E. Ryan, of the Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit. And although the district attorneys in the other boroughs say they cannot gauge the cameras’ effect on conviction rates, either because it is too early or difficult to assess the impact of the cameras alone, they all say digital cameras have vastly improved the way they prosecute domestic violence cases.

“Even if there is an increase in convictions, it doesn’t tell us it’s because the photographs are so much better,” said Penny Santana, chief of the domestic violence bureau for the Bronx district attorney’s office. But, she added, the use of digital pictures “has certainly enhanced our prosecution.”

For one thing, the cameras capture what Polaroids, and the human eye, often miss. Defensive cuts on an outstretched hand. Bruises on the skin of women with dark complexions. When the pictures are magnified, other wounds appear, like broken capillaries, tiny cuts and jagged flaps of skin.

Police officers can also immediately transmit the pictures, by computer, to a database available to prosecutors citywide. Before, with Polaroids, prosecutors had to subpoena a police officer to take photographs to their office, a process that could drag on for days.

Now, as soon as a photo is uploaded, prosecutors can immediately assess the gravity of the wounds and decide how aggressively to pursue a case. The digitally transmitted pictures are now also available for a defendant’s first appearance in court, which experts say is a crucial time in domestic violence cases.

“One of the most serious decisions a judge can take is to set bail instead of sending the person home, where the battery continues,” said Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney.

In Queens, Scott E. Kessler, who heads the district attorney’s domestic violence bureau, has found that when the police take photographs, bail is set in nearly a third of the cases. But without a photo, he said, the figure falls to 14 percent, with the rest of the defendants being released on their own recognizance.

The reason, he says, is the extreme visceral reaction the photos elicit.

“When you’re in a front of a judge, you describe the injuries written in the complaint, the bruising, the swelling, the blood,” Mr. Kessler said. “But until a person sees another human being with those injuries, with the swelling, the blood, the bruising, it’s hard to get that point across.”

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