THE NEW ORLEANS—A crucial witness withdrew from the prosecution after receiving an online death threat, and the case against Dijon Dixon, who is accused of murdering Cornelius Smith in 2019, appeared to be crumbling.
Then, the prosecution gave the defense team a thorough and dramatic timeline that included some of Dixon's social media posts, including one in which the Glock he was holding's partial serial numbers were visible.
A group of individuals who earlier used the internet to trace foreign terrorists has put together the timeline for Jason Williams, the first-term district attorney of New Orleans. The newly established task force is attempting to employ machine learning to automatically produce subpoenas for telecom and social media firms, evaluate the reams of data obtained, and build colorful, detail-rich timelines.
Williams hired the 11-person team to use a 21st-century strategy to combat an increase in violent crime that was made worse by a severely understaffed police force and a backlog of cases.
The arrangement is unprecedented for American law enforcement and has not yet been made public. The use of such data to aid in criminal prosecution, according to legal experts, shouldn't violate constitutional rights, though one noted that it would raise public privacy issues. Concerns were expressed about turning over governmental investigation authority to a private corporation by an organization monitoring the crime issue in New Orleans.
There is pressure on Williams, a Democrat who will be up for election the following year, to make New Orleans safer. His staff in the homicide unit has applauded his move to enlist the assistance of former intelligence operatives who pursued Osama bin Laden and provided military training to Somalia to assist in prosecuting homicides in the Big Easy.
Requests for comment from the New Orleans Police Department and the mayor's office went unanswered.
According to Mr. Dixon's attorney John Fuller, "any effective tool that law enforcement has is a concern of mine." In future instances that go to trial, he said he anticipates that defense lawyers would have the opportunity to contest the task force's conclusions. "I look forward to putting up a fight against it. It must be enjoyable.
Williams has so far committed $250,000 to the pilot project and says he is pleased with the impact the task force has had in only a few months on investigations. In the Dixon case, prosecutors used data acquired by the task force to pinpoint a second suspect in the ongoing investigation. Williams stated that the initiative would be expanded.
The nonprofit organization Bancroft Global Development, which oversees initiatives in war-torn regions of Africa and the Middle East, is a member of the team. The United Nations and the U.S. State Department have both provided funds to the organization. The second is a business called Tranquility AI, which was formed by a Trump appointee and is full of former American intelligence analysts who are experts at finding terrorist networks online.
Employees of Bancroft and Tranquility, which collectively comprise the district attorney's OSINT Task Force, have been cooperating with prosecutors for the past five months. As opposed to obtaining information through interpersonal connections or by intercepting electronic communications, OSINT refers to intelligence collection and analysis of "open source," or publicly available, information.
Williams told the Journal that it made sense to deploy individuals skilled in tracking down foreign terrorists to assist in the prosecution of suspects in violent crimes in New Orleans because shootings at community events and renowned restaurants had scared the city.
"Terrorism" is defined as "someone opening fire with an AK-47 on a crowd of people in a city street," Williams said. "This could be a street in America or it could be a street somewhere else."
According to Judson Mitchell, a defense attorney and professor at Loyola University New Orleans who specializes in law and technology, there shouldn't be any constitutional problems as long as the task force's use of evidence was legitimate. But he added that he anticipates some residents will be concerned about their privacy. Many people are uneasy with the fact that it places a lot of power in the hands of the state.
According to Williams, judges examine each piece of evidence that the task force submits for admissibility as they do with all evidence.
Instead of spending money on outside corporations, others have suggested that police investigations and prosecutors need additional financing. The district attorney's office may be trying to outsource investigation tasks that police should be conducting, according to Rafael Goyeneche, president of the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, a monitoring organization in New Orleans.
Officials from the task force stated that they don't want to stay in the city any longer than is necessary and that their objective is to train local law officers to utilize these tactics themselves.
Many of the New Orleans residents whose opinions were sought for this article stated they supported any fresh approach to stopping the violence.
In May 2021, Indy, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, was pregnant and munching on an apple in her kitchen when shooting broke out at a graduation celebration next door to her New Orleans residence. The gunmen opened fire on her as she was hunkered down, killing two guys and murdering 12-year-old Todriana Peters in the process. Since then, Indy, now 33, claims she has been concerned for the safety of her little daughter and is considering relocating away.
In regards to the violence, she added, "It's never been this bad." "I used to have no trouble walking along this street at night. If I can avoid it, I never longer go outside during the day or at night.
When informed about Williams' plan to hire former foreign intelligence agents to hunt down violent criminals in New Orleans, Indy said, "ASAP. We certainly require the assistance. We require a solution.
According to figures from the New Orleans Police police, there were 265 murders in New Orleans last year. As of September 12, the police has documented 150 killings this year. Homicides during the same time period are up 95% from 2019 levels. According to the Metropolitan Crime Commission, shootings are up 64%, and carjackings are up 68%.
For many years, the New Orleans police force lacked sufficient personnel. Approximately 300 open homicide cases are being handled by prosecutors.
Walking around the city's Audubon Park, Arthur Williamson expressed his concern about crime, saying that it now "could happen anywhere, anytime, and [to] any one of us." Although he approved of the new strategy, he wanted to ensure that the district attorney was open and honest about the price and the methods used to gather and store the data. He didn't care if the group included former national security analysts.
Whoever does the job, as long as they do it, is what matters, he remarked.
When Williams spoke with an old buddy named Aaron Greenstone, the concept for the pilot program was born. The two worked in the criminal-justice system in New Orleans after first meeting as undergraduates at Tulane University. Before being chosen as district attorney, Williams worked as a defense lawyer and rose to the position of president of the City Council. Prior to retiring last year and joining the Bancroft organization, Greenstone was a prosecutor who later pursued a career with the Central Intelligence Agency with assignments in the Middle East and other locations.
Williams claimed that after talking about the similarities between young criminals they were now encountering on the streets of New Orleans and child soldiers in foreign conflict zones, he and Greenstone decided to work together once more.
A less bizarre reality coexisted with that strange one: a team of police and prosecutors with inadequate resources was unable to assess the massive amounts of social media posts, body camera footage, and surveillance film that were required in criminal prosecutions. That data can be organized and processed by artificial intelligence.
In ten years, Williams predicted, "there won't be a district attorney's office or a police department without some team like this, some partnership, or some arrangement like this."
Dave Harvilicz, the founder of Tranquility AI and a former Energy Department employee in the Trump administration, was hired by Greenstone.
According to Harvilicz, his team is currently performing a large portion of the time-consuming analysis by hand, but he wants to make the AI operational in a year. He stated that he believes he may eventually profit from the invention by licensing the software to law enforcement agencies.
“A guy might drop his burner but they’re going to keep their Instagram,” Greenstone said.
According to law professor Mitchell, a significant portion of the program's success may depend on how the emerging AI is used. He pointed out that previous initiatives by the city to deploy cutting-edge technology to combat crime—such as an experiment with data analytics firm Palantir Technologies—were abandoned. Palantir was silent.
Williams claimed that the techniques the former terrorist hunters are employing are especially useful for pursuing youthful criminals, who the city is finding harder and harder to capture.