This Man Spent Nearly A Year In Prison Over Erroneous AI-Based Evidence

man wrongly convicted on ai evidence
Artificial Intelligence is a tricky business, as with anything in life, with great power comes great responsibility. On the one hand, AI can power autonomous vehicles or help usher in more secure computing platforms. On the other hand, for example, now it appears it's possible to end up being jailed due to questionable AI-based evidence. This is precisely what happened to 65-year-old Michael Williams when he was arrested last August, after being accused of killing a young man in his neighborhood who asked for a ride during a night of community unrest, due to a reported police brutality incident.

In 2018, the city of Chicago entered a $33 million contract with ShotSpotter, a network of surveillance microphones that uses a secret AI-powered algorithm to identify and triangulate gunshots with varying degrees of success. In short, this network of microphones is what ended up getting Williams into trouble on the night of Sunday, May 31st, 2020.

shotspotter man jailed over ai powered gunshot detection
ShotSpotter Equipment At East 63rd Street And South Stony Island Ave in Chicago

Late in the evening, Williams had made the decision to buy cigarettes at a local gas station, but upon arrival, found that the store had been looted in the riots following George Floyd’s murder. He then decided just to head back home, when on his way he spotted Safarian Herring, a 25-year-old aspiring chef who he had seen around the neighborhood, waving him down for a ride. Afterward, Williams explained that “I didn’t feel threatened or anything because I’ve seen him before, around. So, I said yes. And he got in the front seat, and we took off.”

michael williams jailed over ai powered gunshot detection
Michael Williams At His Home On The South Side Of Chicago

However, according to documents acquired by the Associated Press, things took a turn for the worse when Williams claimed a vehicle pulled up alongside them nearing an intersection. Purportedly, an occupant of this vehicle fired a shot into Williams’ car, missing him and striking his passenger, Herring, who slumped over and was unresponsive. As Herring bled, Williams shouted to try and get a response while rushing through the city streets to reach St. Bernard Hospital.

Only two weeks prior, Samona Nicholson, Herring’s mother, explained that he had survived a shooting at a bus stop and would stay with a relative where he would be safe. Sadly, though, Herring was pronounced dead on June 2nd, 2020, at 2:53 p.m.

Three months following the traumatic incident, in which Williams endured flashbacks and severe emotional duress, the police showed up. Williams recalled that “officers told him they wanted to take him to the station to talk and assured him he did nothing wrong,” but that was not the case. He was interrogated and put into a holding cell where he was told that he was being charged with first-degree murder; the evidence: ShotSpotter surveillance video data.

gas station man jailed over ai powered gunshot detection
The Gas Station Williams Set Out To Visit

On the night Williams went about his business and witnessed the murder, ShotSpotter sensors detected and alerted police to a loud noise initially triangulated to 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive. This “evidence” was used to anchor the prosecutor’s theory of Williams shooting Herring inside his car, though no motives, eyewitnesses, or the murder weapon were found during the investigation.

Ironically, it appeared that this loud noise was identified by the AI as a firecracker with a 98% confidence rating. However, an employee reclassified the sound to a single gunshot a minute after detection. Then, following “post-process analysis,” the sound was moved to East 63rd Steet and South Stony Island Avenue, the area which Williams was traveling. The Associated Press also notes that the ShotSpotter system sometimes struggles to identify gunshots within vehicles. Furthermore, data is routinely adjusted, which could introduce bias into the system at the behest of police. We can now see what a slippery slope human-managed AI can be at times, depending on the application and use case.

Despite this, Williams was incarcerated for approximately 11 months, wherein he battled COVID-19 twice and developed an uncontrollable tremor. After this long stint away from home, Williams hobbled into Courtroom 500, where 79-year-old Vietnam veteran Judge Vincent Gaughan finally dismissed the case for insufficient evidence. Thus, Williams was finally able to walk out of the Cook County Jail on the evening of July 23rd as a free man.

While Williams is still shaken by the entire ordeal, Herring’s mother still believes that the police had the right suspect, despite the lack of evidence, outside of what she once called “flimsy data,” botched by ShotSpotter. In any event, Williams states that “The only places these devices are installed are in poor black communities, nowhere else,” asking, “How many of us will end up in this same situation?” With this report though, we should also ask ourselves, is judging humanity and human actions with an AI algorithm, the right thing to do when someone's life hangs in the balance?

(ShotSpotter, Michael Williams, and gas station images courtesy of AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)