The defense began to call its first witnesses in the trial of Pierre Haobsh Thursday in the Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Scott, who worked as a criminal investigations detective in March 2016, was the first one called by Mr. Haobsh’s public defenders in the murder trial.
Mr. Scott responded to the Han family home in the 4600 block of Greenhill Way near Goleta the afternoon of March 23, 2016.
He canvassed the neighborhood with other deputies and was given reports of suspicious activity from a mother and a daughter who lived near the Han family.
Elisabeth Cortenay told law enforcement that, around midnight the night before the murders, she saw an Asian man by a group of mailboxes and the adjacent bushes.
Public defender Christine Voss asked whether the man was in the bushes, but Mr. Scott’s report only said the man was near the shrubs.
Ms. Cortenay’s daughter Marisa Brownfield told law enforcement that an Asian man in a dark sedan followed her into the neighborhood and turned onto Greenhill Way. She said she knew Dr. Weidong “Henry” Han, and she did not think the man was Dr. Han.
Ms. Voss asked Deputy Scott if investigators had followed up beyond the initial interviews. He said he gave the tips to the lead investigators; they discussed them and decided they were not relevant to the case.
In his cross-examination of Deputy Scott, prosecutor Hilary Dozer asked if the women gave any description of the man other than his race. Mr. Scott said the only adjective they gave was “helter skelter.”
Ms. Voss asked if he was aware of three Asian men who were associated with the case (other than Dr. Han). He said yes.
Two of the men ate dinner with Dr. Han the evening of March 22, Mr. Dozer said during re-cross.
“Certainly being an Asian male doesn’t raise a red flag as far as suspicion, does it?” he asked.
No, Mr. Scott said.
His testimony was under an hour, and he was dismissed.
The defense’s second witness, Nico Fricchione, had been contested by prosecutors prior to Thursday. When they heard his name on the schedule, they asked if he was relevant to the case.
Public Defender Michael Hanley said Mr. Fricchione’s testimony challenges the prosecution’s theory that a device found with the suspected murder weapon, a .22-caliber pistol, was a homemade suppressor/silencer.
Mr. Fricchione, who joined the court via Zoom from Tempe, Ariz., said he reached out to Mr. Haobsh in 2014 when he was interested in muffling the sound of a pneumatic nail gun.
Mr. Fricchione was part of his father’s construction company, which builds small structures in a warehouse setting. They were worried about the noisy environment, and Mr. Fricchione knew Mr. Haobsh, a neighbor in his apartment complex, had an engineering mind.
Mr. Fricchione, with the advice of Mr. Haobsh, measured the noise of the nail gun with his father in Pennsylvania. His father decided the project was going to be too costly and changed direction.
“It was a very short-lived project,” Mr. Fricchione told Mr. Dozer. “As quickly as it began was as quickly as it stopped.”
The defense provided evidence of a short email exchange that occurred in 2014 as they planned to test the noise.
The bulk of Thursday was spent finishing the cross examination of Jeff Ellis, investigator for the district attorney’s office.
He testified Monday about data found on the computers and cell phones associated with the case and the presence of software that logs keystrokes and screenshots activity.
Ms. Voss questioned whether someone could have hacked the devices and manipulated everything from images to metadata, a file’s data that gives information about location, time and other details.
Mr. Ellis said he did not find malware but did not specifically look for it.
“There was nothing I saw that led me to believe malware was installed.” He said this and similar statements repeatedly.
“Are you aware of a program called Photoshop?” Ms. Voss asked, questioning whether the over 100 screenshots shown in court Monday could have been altered by a hacker.
He said they did not appear altered.
And Mr. Ellis testified Monday that cell phone bills alongside text data show the SIM card from Dr. Han’s phone was placed into Mr. Haobsh’s phone on March 23 during an online banking validation process.
“Can malware cause a SIM card to magically jump out of one phone and into another?” prosecutor Benjamin Ladinig asked.
The defense objected to the question, labeling it argumentative. Judge Brian Hill agreed.
Mr. Ladinig reworded his question.
He ended by asking Mr. Ellis about evidence presented in court Monday: a photo of the keylogger program running on Dr. Han’s computer, exposing Dr. Han’s Social Security number and other information. The photo was found on the defendant’s phone.
Where does the metadata say the photo was taken? Mr. Ladinig asked. The Han residence, Mr. Ellis said.
Ms. Voss asked Mr. Ellis about data he analyzed from AT&T. There were two datasets: one that shows cell tower connections and another that gives an approximate location via an unknown method.
The second dataset, Network Event Location System, gives an accuracy judgment. Mr. Ellis only studied points NELOS judged as at least “1,000 meters or better.”
But Ms. Voss looked at all the points and showed instances where the data shows impossible movement. In one instance, the phone is tracked in Oceanside one minute and in Oxnard the next.
She asked Mr. Ellis if “using common sense and reasoning” he could explain how the phone could get from one point to the next. He said it wasn’t possible.
“So you would agree that this information provided by AT&T simply cannot be accurate?” Ms. Voss asked.
No, he disagreed. She cocked her head. He explained that there are two sets of data and corroborating evidence, such as video evidence of Mr. Haobsh buying the .22-caliber pistol.
Before adjourning, Judge Hill heard concerns from prosecutors about the defense’s expert witness, who will take the stand Monday.
Mr. Dozer said he hadn’t received full citations of the expert’s research and was worried he would have to review source material under a time crunch. He said he raised the issue weeks ago.
“I need to see the material,” he said. “I think it’s gamesmanship on behalf of the defense counsel.”
Mr. Hanley resented name-calling “on the record, in front of the press.”
Judge Hill told the two to simmer, saying proceedings can get more heated during a bench trial.
The defense delivered a 2016 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report.
Ms. Voss has referred to PCAST reports to expert witnesses in prior days of the trial, citing the report’s claim that feature comparison methods have a rate of error.
David Barber, assistant lab director of the California Department of Justice’s Santa Barbara lab, said PCAST is not a valid source for his field of firearm-and-toolmark examination.
The defense’s expert intends to question Mr. Barber’s methodology.
The Department of Justice released a statement in January 2021 regarding the 2016 report after the use of it in court limited the scope of testimony.
“Casework error rates cannot be established through the exclusive and non-severable application of PCAST’s experimental design criteria. No single error rate is applicable to all labs, examiners, or cases,” the statement says.
The trial resumes Monday morning. Judge Hill wants to finish closing arguments by Thanksgiving.