Can You Hear Me Now?

The Whispered Assertions the Jury Will Never Hear

It’s rare a topic in this case comes along that so finely meshes with your editor’s skill sets…other than the basic one.  And by that we mean living  in DC long enough – and having been employed on some side of the communications business – to detect excrement when it happens.  (And, hopefully, still have the chutzpah of Sen. Levin to call a “…shitty deal…” exactly what it is.)  But at many levels, this case has been a learning exercise.

Last Friday, Victor Zaborsky’s counsel Thomas Connolly informed the court the defense would not call for testimony from Dr. Al Yonovitz, Chair and Associate Professor for the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at the University of Montana.

Anything that slims the calendar may be a good thing for both sides.  And Dr. Yonovitz’ research – much based in Australia – demonstrates a sharp and admirable focus on improving treatment of the hearing impaired, especially among the aboriginal population.  Good work, Dr. Al.

But then we dug down into Dr. Yonovitz’s expected testimony, and questions popped up.  Questions as to the basis for his assertions – and the deeper questions they may have provoked that the defense may not have wanted.

Are you listening?   To be determined, after the jump.

Back to skill set.  One of us completed his thesis work in psycho-acoustics titled – should anyone care -“Gestalt Grouping Versus Peripheral Auditory Channel Excitation in Stream Segregation.”  (Not the link to the thesis, but one subsequent peer-reviewed article of many.)

We have a fairly robust understanding of audiology and acoustic research.  Which brings us back to what the defense put forward as Dr. Yonovitz’s expected testimony.

In Attachment B of the Government’s Omnibus Motion in limine Regarding Certain Defense Experts, we learn that Dr. Yonovitz (designated by “Defendant Zabrosky”) conducted sound measurement tests at 1509 Swann.  Among the tests was placing a speaker generating white noise (equal distribution across the spectrum) staring at 60 dB in the second floor office/bedroom and monitoring sound levels at various points in the house, under various circumstances.  Another test:

“Dr. Yonovitz is also expected to testify that the noise level for a 213 pound person walking on the stairs from the first floor to the second floor and the second floor to the third floor was recorded.  The noise level when tested for the sound of the person on the stairs was 48.2 dB (from the crime scene bedroom), 46.6 (for the second floor bedroom) and 44.4 (for the third floor bedroom.”

It was also his assertion that “…a person’s sleep can be interrupted or disturbed by sound levels between 60 and 84 dB, however, rarely is a person awakened by those sounds.  Only where the highest level of sound source (85-90 dB) occurs is an awakening likely to occur.”  Ergo: it’s entirely plausible the housemates didn’t hear the intruder go up and down the stairs.

Considering the logarithmic nature of the dB scale, the difference between 45 and 85 is massive.  45 dB may be like the general ambience of a quiet home – humming appliance, computer hard drive, filtered street sounds – while 85 can be like sitting in a moving diesel truck.

The first question is the methodology for the stairs test.  Was this person walking steadily and surely up the stairs?  Or was he running down, each footfall landing fast and hard?  There’s a vast difference not only in amount of noise generated but the character of the noise and how the brain interprets it.

But a deeper issue crops up.  As we saw Tuesday, both Joe and Victor made specific, repeated references to “..low breathy grunts…” they heard coming from Robert’s room.  This with, as they say, both his door and their door closed.

First, there’s a significant difference between a low grunt and a high-pitched scream in terms of how the sound propagates and is heard by the brain.  But if Dr. Yonovitz’s ambient test results were correct, then – by his own testimony – there’s virtually no way the two upstairs could have heard such low sounds.

So which is it?  Is Swann silent as a library or loud as a disco?  If silent, then no-one could have heard the low grunts; if loud, then why did no-one hear the hurried footsteps of a fleeing murderer?

We can only guess how much the defense had to pay Dr. Yonovitz for his time, research and opinion, but with the pulling of his testimony, it was money wasted.  Perhaps worse: with the prosecution’s publishing of his findings and the contradictory assertions they present, it may have been money misspent.

posted by Doug

28 comments for “Can You Hear Me Now?

  1. CDinDC
    04/30/2010 at 9:51 AM

    Maybe Dr. Yonovitz couldn’t be bought. He was hired to do testing and research. He did just that. Perhaps he didn’t allow his findings to be swayed one way or another by the check in the mail. Unlike the shamful, Dr. “Ketchup” Lee.

    • Bea
      04/30/2010 at 11:54 AM

      Agree – was likely to answer honestly that if the 3rd floor residents couldn’t hear the descending intruder (no mention of 2nd floor resident?) then they couldn’t have heard low breathy grunts. Or possibly that Dylan WOULD have heard intruder-on-stairs.

      Dang, that $50K could have bought another Mercedes in the lineup of Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes!

      • Clio
        04/30/2010 at 8:37 PM

        In his close-up with the cops, Joe thought that the AC humming under/around Dyl’s room muffled any sound for his sidekick to hear. But, then again, I had thought that the AC sucked at 1509 Swann.

  2. Craig
    04/30/2010 at 11:59 AM

    We’re having library issues with WordPress right now. The post was not linking to the correct government doc. It will be fixed momentarily.

    • Doug
      04/30/2010 at 12:01 PM

      It’s fixed now. -Doug, co-editor

  3. SaraSidle
    04/30/2010 at 12:49 PM

    Interestng. I wonder what the dB level for the alarm chimes would be.

    • David
      04/30/2010 at 1:14 PM


      Don’t forget that a chime rang in the third floor bedroom, so Joe wouldn’t have to hear it coming up from the first floor. This bit of testimony could certainly be true, especially according to the defense’s audiologist.


      • SaraSidle
        04/30/2010 at 1:39 PM


        I was just kind of thinking out loud from personal experience. I have a very similar setup at my house…alarm pad in the bedroom that chimes when the door is opened and hardwood floors. I am awakened more by someone or something (like my fatass 120lb dog) on the staircase than I am the chimes from the alarm system. Although the chimes are closer to me in the bedroom, they are a higher pitch sound and nowhere near as loud as noise on the staircase – maybe because of the pitch of the sound or the acoustics. Therefore, if the chimes would be enough to wake me, I sure as hell would hear someone on my staircase.

        • Doug
          04/30/2010 at 2:00 PM

          Remember, too, that your brain attends to the nature of the sound as well as the overall sound level. Seems we’re wired to group sounds into non-threatening (very often sounds we become used to) and those that may pose a threat, or that we can’t immediately explain. If we become accustomed to the door chime, we may stop attending to it. Also, we’re more likely to attend to sounds that have sudden onsets or are jangled than we are an electronic chime which is likely created to have a softer onset and character. (Chimes sound nice, alarms sound alarming.)
          -Doug, co-editor

          • Lyn
            04/30/2010 at 2:20 PM

            In my house, I wake up quickly if the dog whines because it needs to be let out. My wife never hears this. Just the opposite is true with the kids; if they wake up crying, I don’t hear it but my wife always does. Weird what our minds pay attention to.

        • SaraSidle
          04/30/2010 at 2:04 PM

          Sorry David…I don’t always type everything I am thinking and may not convey my thoughts properly as a result.

          If someone entered via the backdoor, the chimes would have sounded once when the door was initially opened. If the “intruder” left the door open whent they entered, there would have been no door chime when they exited. If, however, the “intruder” closed the door behind them when they entered, the door chime would have sounded again upon exit.

          If the the chime only sounded one time, then Joe was awakened when the “intruder” entered the house and certainly should have heard activity on the stairs.

          If the chime sounded twice and Joe did not hear it the first time, but was awakened by the second set of chimes when the “intruder” exited the house, I still believe he would have been awakened by activity on the stairs.

          And after all that typing…in a nutshell – awakened by door chimes and the “intruder” story…total B.S. as has been stated by just about everyone here – except for the kite flyer, of course.

          • Bea
            04/30/2010 at 2:09 PM

            True, Sara, and Victor “thought” he heard the second chime about the time he started screaming though Joe didn’t – I assume this is just hedging the bets.

            • CDinDC
              04/30/2010 at 2:30 PM

              And, if Sara’s supposition is accurate for 1509 Swann, there wouldn’t have been a second chime, because the door was ajar.

      • Tallulah
        04/30/2010 at 2:11 PM

        Please clear this up for me- I thought it was only the doors to the exterior of the house with sensors? If so, if it’s like my ADT system, the chimes are heard most clearly in close proximity to the door in question, not necessarily in the third floor bedroom. Am I missing something here?

        • SaraSidle
          04/30/2010 at 2:27 PM

          The chimes come from the control pad of the alarm system – there was an alarm pad in the 3rd floor bedroom.

  4. Holy Moly
    04/30/2010 at 2:06 PM

    Having lived in several rowhouses,one in Adams Morgan,I know they can be echo chambers with or without floor coverings.Especially with narrow staircases like ones I have been to in the Dupont neighboorhood,albiet nowhere near as chi-chi as 1509 Swann.I’ve just lived wrong I guess…

  5. SwannStreetDweller
    04/30/2010 at 2:17 PM

    When did Dr. Y conduct his tests at 1509 Swann? The place underwent some significant remodeling in 2006/2007 after MPD pulled it apart . In this respect, one wonders how valid these test results would be given the remodeling (perhaps they had new stairs installed which better insulated noise — Dr. Y might as well have been testing in a different house). I suppose the test results are moot now anyway….

    • CDinDC
      04/30/2010 at 2:31 PM

      Good point SwannStreet.

    • Craig
      04/30/2010 at 6:52 PM

      Good point. The staircase was dismantled by thr crime scene techs then later rebuilt after the defendants moved back in.

      I wonder if Dr. Y tested under similar circumstances, e.g., the air conditioner running, all the windows closed, etc.

      I still wonder about Price pre-explaining to detectives that the A/C hum was the reason Ward was not awakened.

      Nine days to go.

  6. NYer
    04/30/2010 at 3:15 PM

    Hmm… 213 pounds is an odd number to use for testing, given that all three likely weigh much less than that. Is that how much Dr. Yonovitz weighs?

    • AnnaZed
      04/30/2010 at 4:25 PM

      Maybe Michael Price weighs 213 pounds. Maybe that’s exactly what he weighs. Maybe Victor was trying to make a specific point (Ha!); in any case what a peculiar number.

      • CDinDC
        04/30/2010 at 5:08 PM

        Maybe it’s how much Sarah weights.

        • CDinDC
          04/30/2010 at 5:09 PM

          weights – t = weighs

          • She did it
            04/30/2010 at 9:13 PM

            sara weighs only 213? has she been dieting? to hear joe price tell it; sara put the “fat ass” in “fat ass”. i wonder what joe tips the scale at these days?

    • Robert
      05/10/2010 at 1:09 AM

      Maybe it is how much housemate Sarah Morgan weighed a point which Joe made in connection with her climbing up and down the stairs.

  7. CC Biggs
    04/30/2010 at 4:23 PM

    A jury is not going to let an experiment trump common sense. On the question of whether or not residents of the house could hear a 200+ pounder walking up a flight of wooden stairs in a small house late at night, members of the jury are going to say to themselves, “Of course they could hear such a thing,” regardless of what this study might suggest.

    • Eagle
      04/30/2010 at 8:31 PM

      The defendants use of all these “experts” (Lee and Yonovitz for example) reminds me of my children’s strategies when they were budding adolescents.
      Ask them for an explanation of their behaviors (or lack of certain expected behaviors) and they would come up with hugely detailed scenarios which were compelling but totally irrelevant and devoid of common sense.
      Slippery, slippery, slippery.

  8. Clio
    04/30/2010 at 8:30 PM

    Didn’t Jule Gardner Banville leave DC for the University of Montana in 2009? If so, then, did one of her (or her husband’s) colleagues — this professor, perhaps — need a little travel money? With state budget cuts, academic junkets are not as frequent as before the fall of Lehman Bros., I must say.

Comments are closed.