The case against Dijon Dixon, accused of killing Cornelius Smith in New Orleans in 2019, seemed to be falling apart when a key witness backed out after an online death threat. Prosecutors presented the defense team with a detailed and dramatic timeline featuring some of Dixon’s social-media posts—including one in which the serial numbers of the Glock he was holding were partially visible. Dixon took a plea deal. The timeline was assembled by people who once tracked international terrorists online and now are working for New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams. The new task force is working to use machine-learning to autogenerate subpoenas for social-media and wireless companies, analyze the reams of data obtained and create vivid, detail-packed timelines, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Williams hired the team of 11 to take a 21st-century approach to tackling a surge in violent crime amid an understaffed police department and an large backlog of cases. The arrangement is unusual for law enforcement. Experts say the harnessing of such data to help prosecute crimes shouldn’t run afoul of constitutional protections, although it could prompt privacy concerns. A group tracking the New Orleans crime problem raised concerns about outsourcing the state’s investigative authority to a private company. Williams is under pressure to make New Orleans safer. His decision to bring in the former intelligence agents, who tracked Osama bin Laden and trained the Somali military, to help prosecute homicides has been praised by his staff in the homicide unit. Williams has dedicated $250,000 to the pilot project and says he is impressed with how the task force has made a difference in a few months. In the Dixon case, prosecutors were able to identify a second suspect from information gathered by the task force. Williams plans to expand the effort. One part of the team is Bancroft Global Development, a nonprofit with projects in war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East. The other is Tranquility AI, a startup stacked with former U.S. intelligence analysts expert at tracking terrorist cells online.