Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for LAist comes from:

Donald Sterling: NBA hires audio forensics expert to review recording (UPDATED)

Caption:Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, April 21, 2014 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said April 26 that the NBA is investigating Sterling for alleged racist comments. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The NBA has hired an audio forensics expert to help determine whether a voice heard on tapes released over the weekend is Donald Sterling's.

An audio forensics expert told KPCC that he has been hired by the National Basketball Association as part of its effort to determine whether L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is the man caught on an audio recording making racist remarks.

Thomas Owen — owner of Owen Forensic Services based in New Jersey — wouldn't comment on what he's doing in relation to the investigation or when his work would be completed.  

On his resume, Owen says he is an expert in voice identification and audio authentication and has testified in court proceedings around the country.

RELATED: Who is Donald Sterling? An FAQ on the Clippers owner's history, past lawsuits (updated)

Representatives from the NBA did not respond to requests for comment, but the league has scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. Pacific Time Tuesday.

The recording first appeared on the celebrity gossip website TMZ on Friday night. TMZ said Donald Sterling can be heard talking to V. Stiviano, a Mid-City resident who has had a personal relationship with Sterling. (Stiviano later said through her attorney that the tape is legitimate, but she didn't leak it.)

During the conversation, a man can be heard telling her not to post photos of herself with minorities on social media or bring minorities to "games."

Sterling has not commented on the matter, but Clippers president Andy Roeser released the following statement:

Fans, celebrities and politicians have been in an uproar over the tapes since Friday night, with many calling for Sterling to sell the team or for the NBA to take swift action against him.

Vetting the tape

Greg Stutchman, an audio forensics expert, said it’s important to prove two things about the recording: first, that it’s really Sterling on the recording and second, that it wasn’t altered in a way to make him say things he didn’t actually say.

Stutchman said that computer programs and other examination techniques can identify where an audio file has been edited.

“Spectrographic analysis will actually basically do an autopsy on the recording, looking for evidence that would be there if it were edited,” Stutchman said.

As for matching Sterling’s voice to the one on the recording, Stutchman said it’s a simple matter if investigators have a sample of audio known to contain Sterling’s voice.

“A qualified examiner should be able to give them a very strong likelihood of a match,” Stutchman said.

That may be complicated by the fact that the NBA can’t force TMZ to give up the original recordings, as the NBA doesn’t have to power to subpoena information.

Possible penalties

On the flip side, however, law experts said that the NBA doesn’t have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Sterling is guilty of making the comments in order to levy fines or suspend him.

“This isn’t a criminal trial. They just have to determine that it’s more likely than not that [Sterling] made these damaging statements. Once they reach that conclusion, and they’ve done a thorough investigation, then they should be pretty insulated against a suit by Sterling against the NBA,” said Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California.

“But they have to dot their i’s and cross their t’s, because Sterling himself is a lawyer. So he knows his legal rights, and he will, I’m sure, enforce them to the fullest,” Armour said.

Armour said that while NBA commissioner Adam Silver has the ability to fine or suspend Sterling, any action he decides to take will likely be influenced by all the team owners.      

 “The commissioner really works at the pleasure of the other owners. He says he represents the league. He doesn’t represent the players; he represents the owners. So anything he does has to really be done in consultation with the owners,” Armour said.

Armour says that input makes it less likely Silver will decide anything extra harsh. After all, owners don’t want to be punished for things they tweet or say in private.

“I doubt that they would want the commissioner to establish the precedent of suspending Sterling for these kinds of remarks, but certainly a fine, I could see as likely and very probable,” Armour said.