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Cyber-Sleuth Combs Computers for Evidence

Posted on 20 February 2009

On December 11, 1999, the Maranatha Christian Journal reported “South Dakota Pastor to Go on Trial for Murder.” Rev. William Guthrie, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, was jailed without bond and charged with the first-degree murder of his wife, Sharon Guthrie. She had been found dead in the bathtub of their home. An autopsy revealed that she had taken a sleeping pill overdose.

Rev. Guthrie pleaded innocent. “A minister killing his wife in the bathtub? Impossible!” asserted the defense. The prosecutor, however, was convinced the reverend slipped sleeping pills into his wife’s chocolate milk. Cyber-sleuth Judd Robbins helped prove this assertion and sent the wayward minister to jail for life.

After three days of combing the minister’s files, Robbins finally found evidence that Guthrie had searched the Internet for painless killing methods. He also unearthed detailed notes about sleeping pills and lethal household cleaning agents. Until Robbins began his forensic investigation of the minister’s computer was undertaken, there had been no hard evidence supporting the prosecutor’s case.

Computer forensics involves the preservation, identification, extraction, and documentation of electronic evidence.

Computer Forensics
The 54-year-old Robbins heads Presentation Dynamics Inc., a consulting firm specializing in computer forensics. Holding degrees in physics, information science, and computer science, he has worked a variety of programming, systems design, and teaching jobs and written books on software and databases. But, in the emerging forensics field, Robbins is one of only a dozen investigators in the United States.

Computer forensics involves the preservation, identification, extraction, and documentation of computer evidence stored as data or magnetically encoded information. The fascinating thing is, this kind of evidence is often transparently created by a computer operating system without the knowledge of the user. In other words, incriminating details may actually be hidden from view. To find them, special forensic software tools and techniques are required.

Recently, the demand for forensics experts has increased dramatically. Since few people have the required skills, incredible career opportunities are available. A sluggish economy hasn’t dampened industry prospects. Attorneys have learned that computers and the Internet are powerful evidentiary tools for both convicting and exonerating suspected criminals.

Robbins has also solved liability cases, and more recently unraveled complex software piracy cases. Software companies lose billions of dollars each year to counterfeiters who sell their products at a severe discount. “Counterfeit versions exist for every Microsoft product,” says Robbins. “For $20 or $30, you can buy pirated software that sells for $200 and $300 when legally licensed.”

As part of his assignment, Robbins examines and tests the pirated software. “One part of the software is often defective and everything else works perfectly,” Robbins reveals. “I use a microscope to analyze the microprint and find out if the printing is correct. Most counterfeiters don’t have the equipment to reproduce the sophisticated printing that a large software company uses.”

Secrets of Success
Robbins loves what he does, but cyber-sleuthing is intense and tedious. His job combines the skills of a seasoned techie with at least 10 years of experience and the patience to invest days taking apart a computer in search of evidence. Combing through a computer’s innards is the fun part; the stressful part is being grilled by menacing attorneys who try to break down his testimony. “Attorneys can be brutal and verbally abusive,” says Robbins. “To be effective, you must exude confidence and not lose your cool.”

To break into the field, Robbins says, you should learn about computer hardware and software, especially operating systems. “Like any technical discipline, an experienced techie can learn it in a brief amount of focused time,” Robbins explains.

Next, Robbins suggests promoting yourself on a Web site and advertising in magazines and newspapers for attorneys. “You must promote yourself aggressively and make your skills available to attorneys,” he says. “One case leads to another. That’s how you establish credentials. It takes hard work, but it can done.” Robbins is living proof.

What does it pay? Robbins wouldn’t reveal specifics, but he did say that forensic rates range from $150 to $450 an hour–depending on the complexity of the case. Naturally, someone of his caliber and experience commands the high end of that scale. Beyond great money, though, the Sherlock Holmes and human psychology aspects of the work get his heart pumping. “I discover things about people that are unexplainable,” he adds, “not to mention shocking.”

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. secret says:

    Thanks for posting this. It is really helpful, especially to an IT student like me. I already had an answer to my assignment..haha. By the way, Mr. Judd Robbins is amazing. He is so intelligent. I find his job interesting, I hope I can be like him. Thank you again.

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