Time Synchronisation in Criminal Cases

How Speed cameras catch a killer

On occasion, we all need to know the time and we have a multitude of different devices to tell us it, from our mobile phones and wrist watches to the office wall clock or the chimes on the radio news. But how accurate are all these clocks and does it matter if they are all telling different times?

map of the route taken by the killer

For our day-to-day business it probably doesn't matter too much. If the office wall clock is a faster than your wrist-watch your boss probably won't fire you for being a minute late but when it comes to solving criminal cases, timing is everything!

Take the case of Joan Beddeson, a 71-year-old found murdered in her home in Macclesfield. The chief suspect, her former lover who owed the victim over a quarter of a million pounds, 64-year-old John Crittenden, denied the killing, claiming he was at home in bed with his wife at the time of the murder.

However, police had discovered a credit card statement that showed that Crittenden had bought fuel in Worcester just hours before the killing and was then spotted on a camera 12 minutes later travelling up the motorway towards Macclesfield. Later that night the same car was recorded coming back down the motorway leaving Crittenden with a 45 minute window to commit his crime.

However, during his trial Crittenden, who admitted buying the fuel, denied travelling up the motorway and claimed the cameras were not accurate. However, the cameras were all synchronised using a NTP time server (Network Time Protocol) to Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) and was so accurate that Crittenden's lawyers had no defence and he was convicted of the murder and sent to prison for life.

photographs of the victim and the accused

Time synchronisation is not just important in securing convictions it can also prove somebody's innocence! When a woman was found murdered in Maryland US, the police thought they had found the perpetrators when the victim's bank card was being used at an ATM. A check at a local CCTV camera provided footage of three suspects using the machine and although the quality was quite grainy, once aired on America's Most Wanted, the three suspects were soon rounded up.

However, it emerged that the time recorded by the camera was three minutes off the time recorded by the ATM and the three people held were an entirely innocent family, not connected with he murder at all!

The investigators conceded that if the camera had been synchronised to a reliable source like the ATM machine, then the wrongful arrest would not have been made.

The cases above underline the importance of reliable time synchronisation. Even if a business is not involved in the detection of crime, failing to synchronise a computer network can leave a system vulnerable to fraud, data loss and even legal exposure and without it, organizations can lose credibility.

Specialist NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are available and can synchronise a computer network and all its devices to an accurate clock source such as an atomic clock using either the GPS or a specialist radio transmission, allowing networks to be accurately synchronized to Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) the International time scale.

About the Author

Richard N Williams is a technical author and a specialist in the telecommunications and network time synchronisation industries. For more information about NTP products please refer to our NTP servers page

This article may not be republished or reprinted in its complete form or in part without seeking permission providing a relevant link to this site is maintained. It is a violation of copyright law to reprint or publish this content without following these terms.

Copyright © 2008

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