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Firm Thinking - Episode 5

Discussion: American Murder - Netflix Documentary - 10/28/20

Firm Thinking is a podcast created by the Law Firm of Hourigan Kluger and Quinn. Topics vary from legal matters to current events. Hosts Atty. Nicole Santo and Mike Lombardo discuss the current Netflix, American Murder and how it impacts todays society.

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Nicole Santo:
Hi, everyone, welcome to Episode Five of FIRM Thinking my name's Nicole Santo and I'm Mike Lombardo.

Michael Lombardo:
We're going with a little bit of a different format for this week's episode. In our past few episodes, we've interviewed some folks from the community that have interesting stories to tell, and we were happy to bring that to you. But this week, we're going to talk about something that's been very popular in the Netflix arena that also has a lot of implications for the legal world.

Nicole Santo:
We're going to be talking about the Netflix documentary American Murder, and it's the story of the devastating, tragic murders that happened in Colorado back in August of 2018, the Watts' family murders. So essentially, we're going to give some background on what happened.

Nicole Santo:
We both watched the documentary. We've kind of followed the story, as I'm sure so many of you have, because it's just absolutely devastating. You know, this Watts family from Colorado looked perfect to everyone on the outside. Beautiful family, husband and wife, Chris and Shanann Watts. They had two daughters. Bella was age four, Celeste age three, you know, from the outside looking in, they looked perfect. They actually found out, I think, the spring before that they would be expecting their third child, a boy, and Jenny and the wife.

Nicole Santo:
She was very active on social media. She would document much of her life, like so many do these days, documented, telling her husband, Chris, the news about this this new new baby and how excited they were. So essentially what happens is, is that she goes to North Carolina. They were both originally from North Carolina. They moved to Colorado. She goes to North Carolina to visit her family for a few weeks, six weeks. In the meantime, she notices that Chris is acting a little bit different. It seems a little bit withdrawn. She later kind of talk to him about it via text. He's not as responsive. He comes to visit, I think, the last week of that six week period, and she notices a difference.

Michael Lombardo:
You know what was interesting to me? I never I hadn't I don't know if you did, but I didn't hear about this story before the Netflix documentary.

Michael Lombardo:
Had you had you heard about it? I did. I did. Because I guess it did play out pretty, pretty heavily because when she said I might have trouble with that name because it looks like you want to say Shannon, but it's Shanann. When she initially disappeared, he gave this kind of heartfelt plea to the community, bring bring back my wife, bring back my kids. He was on the morning talk show circuit and please just bring my kids back home safe. So kind of talking to everybody's heartstrings. So I guess it garnered a lot of attention. I personally didn't see it, but I guess it did have a lot of attention at that time. And now, of course, with the Netflix documentary coming back, it's bringing everything, everything back again. But what's interesting about the the case is that. As true to most things these days, so much of it played out in social media, so you have all of this history leading up to the event documented on CNN's Facebook page. But what I've found out now is that her parents actually gave the producer of that documentary access to her laptop, to her phone. So they they had pretty much unfettered access, kind of behind the scenes access.

Nicole Santo:
And that's how you can see it kind of play out. You know, the text that she was sending him back and forth, you know, when they were away and how, you know, it was you know, she could tell that there was some difference.

Michael Lombardo:
So just to kind of wrap up what actually happened for those for those folks who haven't who aren't familiar with the story or who haven't seen the documentary. And obviously this podcast would make a lot more sense if you saw the documentary. So we would encourage you to go ahead and watch it. But it's kind of like the classic tale of the love triangle. Chris obviously developed a romance outside of his marriage with this with this other woman.

Michael Lombardo:
And I if I had the benefit of not knowing what happened, that was I was watching the documentary, so I had a little bit of a different perspective. But as you're watching the documentary, you could kind of see how he's becoming more and more aloof from her, not really excited that they're about to have another baby, their third child. And, you know, we're kind of watching it from thirty thousand feet. And you can see that, boy, this guy has to have there's got to be somebody else in the picture. He's not at all excited as engaged with his young family. He just seems totally aloof. And that's ultimately what what what played out.

Nicole Santo:
So essentially what happens is they come home from North Carolina and then a few days later, she goes on this business trip to Arizona. She he stays home with the kids. She finds out, I don't know, she got some sort of notification or looked at the credit card statement. He told her he was going to dinner by himself.

Michael Lombardo:
Yeah, that's what it was like. He went to like a fancy restaurant. And I think there was like drinks on the tab. I mean, she was she was she knew that it was for more than one person. Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty clear.

Nicole Santo:
So essentially what happens is she gets dropped off at the house by her friend at 1:00 in the morning when she gets home from this business trip and their security footage picked up, you could see her going into the house, which is the last time anyone sees her. There was the ring, the ring doorbell, I think. Right. And you know what happens? You know, the murders essentially happened that night.

Michael Lombardo:
He he ultimately confessed to the crime. So so what we know happened is that she they had some type of confrontation over her suspicions, which ultimately weren't suspicious. They proved to be true that he was cheating and they had a conflict about that. And he essentially murdered her in cold blood. And the two young children, I think, woke up at some point. Obviously, from the commotion, he I mean, it's really hard to watch it. It's really it's it's it's really hard to watch and to think about. But he essentially loaded his wife's dead body into his truck and then packed up the two children. And he was an oil driller at some type of don't know exactly what he did, but he worked on a like an oil derrick or something like that. And he packed up a few kids, took them to a site, buried his wife's body, and then smothered his two children in cold blood and stuffed their their bodies in an oil tanker. It's really difficult to watch and it's hard to understand because he's a seemingly, quote unquote, normal guy. Right. And it's hard to understand how someone wouldn't have manifested something in their background leading up to that point, that they're that callous and can do something so horrific. I mean, you really can't imagine something worse than what he did, right?

Nicole Santo:
And then the next day, so what happens is, is that so Shannan had an OB appointment the next day for her pregnancy. She misses the appointment. Her friend who dropped her off at the house realizes she misses the appointment calls or calls or texts or no answer. So she goes to the house. I think it was like noon the next day. And you can see that her car's in the garage, rings the doorbell, nobody's answering. She ends up calling the police to do essentially a welfare check and they can't go into the house. They need the permission of the homeowner. So they call Chris. He comes home from work and he actually let the police in the house. And the interesting thing about the Netflix documentary is that you're essentially seeing everything firsthand because the cops that came to the house were wearing body cameras. So basically, the whole first part of the documentary is from the perspective of these police officers going through, you know, hearing this information for the first time and you can see everything, his reactions and everything.

Michael Lombardo:
And the friend sort of ends up being a hero in a lot of respects because you can tell that she's immediately suspicious. Like Shanann would never do this. Shanann would never to never leave her phone.

Nicole Santo:
They came in her purse, was there with her phone and her keys, and she said she would never leave without her phone. She never missed an appointment.

Michael Lombardo:
But as you mentioned, we have the body cam footage. We talked about the Facebook footage or excuse me, the Facebook, the printouts from Facebook, the the access that they had to text messages and so forth, and then the interviews when he's ultimately brought in for questioning is also all recorded. So we have this treasure trove of data that we could kind of watch how this plays out. And the producers do a really good job of kind of taking you on that journey.

Nicole Santo:
One thing that was really interesting I found was when they bring in the neighbor who has surveillance footage that hones in on the drive on the Watts's driveway and he plays it for the police and it shows Chris's pickup truck backed up, you know, towards the garage. He tells the police he never knows are there and he's loading things into the truck and you can see it. And when he's playing it for the police, you can see on the body camera Chris's reaction to watching that. And he's not paying attention to the video. He looks nervous. He's looking at his phone. He's touching his head. You know, he's not eyes peeled, looking to see if there's any evidence on that camera.

Michael Lombardo:
And the neighbor calls that out. The the neighbor pulls the cop aside. And again, this plays out on the body cam footage and says he's not acting right. Like I know something's something's wrong. Yeah, for sure. And with the benefit of hindsight, it's just. It's hard to understand how someone could just be standing there and be so calm and collected and answering all those questions, knowing what he just did, right. So the police. You know, we talked about this before we started recording, but. Most of the time, people who are murdered know the people who who murder them. It's it's unusual for a killing to be random. So in a situation like this, any any seasoned police investigator who's who's coming to that crime is one of the first things they're going to suspect is I would think is is the spouse.

Michael Lombardo:
Right. And that's ultimately what happens. And that that plays out all on video. And they bring him in for questioning.

Nicole Santo:
And and he initially goes in voluntarily. Right. Sits and talks to the investigators voluntarily and agrees to undergo the polygraph test.

Michael Lombardo:
Yeah. And one of the things that's. That's interesting is that all throughout this time period, it's not so much interesting as it is cold and callous that he's putting out this this vibe that he's the concerned, the concerned dad, the concerned husband, and kind of, you know, tugging at the heartstrings of the community. And, of course, there was a groundswell of community support. Let's go out look, let's hang fliers. Let's go search in the woods, search, search all over the town. And he kind of lets that go on knowing what he did. Right now, you raise the issue of the polygraph and the polygraph is is interesting because I think now from TV, most people maybe don't. But what polygraphs are not admissible? Probably polygraphs are not admissible as evidence in a case. But as we see in this case, it could be a very effective investigative tool.

Nicole Santo:
Right. And just so everyone's clear, a polygraph is a lie detector test. Right. So essentially, you're hooked up to a machine. You know that they check your respiration rate, your heart rate to gauge your reaction to questions that are being asked. And it's a long process because you're essentially asked the same question multiple times to kind of gauge whether you're telling the truth or not. And as you said, although they're not admissible in court, they are interrogated or interrogation tool, especially if somebody agrees to undergo it voluntarily.

Michael Lombardo:
Right. So, you know, the police are coming to the scene. There's no evidence of forced entry. There's no real evidence of a struggle.

Nicole Santo:
The house was actually pristine. It was so clean.

Michael Lombardo:
So right off the bat, as an investigator, you have to be thinking that whoever if there was any foul play afoot, that it had to be someone that was known to these people. You may not suspect the husband at first, although that's that's an obvious place to go. But whoever it was had to know these folks because there's no sign that anyone gained entry to the house through illegal means. So right off the bat, the investigators have to be thinking about that. Then they do the polygraph, the lie detector test, and he scores miserably on that. And I think at that point, the investigators suspicions are probably confirmed. So they didn't you get the sense in the documentary that he does poorly on the test, but maybe not how poorly as he actually did? We found this out after the fact that a failure on a lie detector test, a failing score is a minus four. He scored a minus 18, which is abysmal. It's off the charts. Right. So I think at that point it's like, let's have our guts ever come to Jesus moment here. Chris, what did you do? Get this? You kind of get this off your off your chest.

Nicole Santo:
She basically says, listen, I know I know you're being deceptive. And I think you know what's at that point that he says, I want to talk to my father.

Michael Lombardo:
Yeah. And they kind of playing that good cop role like, hey, get this off your chest. This is a burden. And they give him access to his to his father, which kind of sets the wheels in motion. He doesn't totally confess, but he kind of sets the wheels in motion that he played at least some role into this. And we don't we don't have to go looking for a stranger. Now, we know that he that that it's him. So Dad comes in the room and he kind of has this cathartic moment with dad where he just kind of breaks down and he admits to the affair.

Michael Lombardo:
He admits he admits to the affair, but he places the killing of the children on Shanann. And he says essentially that once Shanann did that, that he acted it out in a fit of rage and killed her. Right. But I think anyone looking at this in a reasonable state of mind is going to say that's a story.

Nicole Santo:
And what I didn't realize from the documentary until we talked about it later was that the evidence definitely did not point in that direction. Nobody was thinking it was Shanann who killed the kids. But it wasn't until two months later that he finally admitted that he was the one who killed the children. I did not know it was that much of a time that had passed.

Michael Lombardo:
And let's let's talk about the implications of social media in this case. Because, again, my perspective, my perspective of it was I hadn't seen the case before. I had no idea what the facts were. I had no idea where the producers were taking us with this documentary. So let me hear what your perspective is, because when I'm watching it and they're showing all of her social media posts and she was someone who put an awful lot on social media, and they give you this perspective in the documentary that some people, when the crime was when the crime had happened and they were going back and looking at her social media, they were kind of looking at her almost critically because she put so much out there. And this is a phenomena that we see so much now. Right. People just kind of putting their life all out there on Facebook, but they seem like they're walking you down this path in the documentary like. Kind of kind of painting her in a negative light because she's just so out there on social media and putting all of this out there and, you know, kind of with the children and, you know, putting them out there on her Facebook.

Michael Lombardo:
I know a lot of people do that, but what was your reaction to their portrayal of social media?

Nicole Santo:
My reaction was that she was the type of person that if you were looking at her life through the lens of Facebook or Instagram, you would think that she had it all was perfect. You know, this happy family, these two beautiful, healthy children, you know, a loving husband and, you know, this new baby on the way. And, you know, it just goes to show you that, you know, social media is not reality. You know, it is just my reaction was that, you know, people put what they want to portray on social media. And that's so difficult, I think, especially for our teens and preteens growing up where they think that allow like, look, this is someone's life looks perfect. Look what they're doing. I wish I was doing that. And, you know, I think it could really take, you know, a mental toll on people.

Michael Lombardo:
So my take on social media is that do I think that social media in and of itself causes mental disorders and mental illness? No, but I think that it could make people who are already struggling. It could make their conditions worse. As you said, you know, people put out what they want to put out, but it's not really necessarily how life actually is. And there's always kind of this phenomenon with human nature that's keeping up with the Joneses type of phenomena. But it's even worse now with Facebook because, as you said, you watch that and you see what so-and-so is doing on Facebook or putting out there on Instagram. Boy, what I'm doing kind of pales in comparison. I wish I had that way. And it kind of it messes with people's self-esteem.

Nicole Santo:
And then you see something like this or it's just shocking when something that was put out there on social media was so opposite of what was actually going on.

Michael Lombardo:
Yeah. And he was obviously living a double life. I mean, you you know, he looks like the all-American guy, clean cut, dress nice, had a pretty decent job, bought themselves a pretty decent house in a nice suburb of Denver. You know, everything looks great. And it just really wasn't the reality. Obviously, neither of them were happy. He wasn't happy in his marriage. He was looking for satisfaction elsewhere. He found it. And a coworker. And you saw the struggles because you kind of got that both aspects of her life. You saw what she was putting out there in social media. But because the family gave access to her, her phone and her computer. Right. You saw the torture that she was undergoing with her friend that she was kind of sharing that, you know, Chris is being absent. He's not being attentive. He's preoccupied. So you kind of see that that sort of tortured soul that that she was that she was undergoing. Right.

Nicole Santo:
I mean, and it's just it's just so sad. The whole story is just it's just so sad.

Michael Lombardo:
So to wrap up how it played out, in essence, he he initially gave that really tortured story that that Shanann had killed the kids, which really didn't make any sense. There was no evidence of that, that she would ever do something like that. It was really absurd for him to make that claim. And then he said that he killed her in a fit of rage. The police charge him and then ultimately, about two months later, he comes clean and says that I was actually the one that killed her and then killed the two children. And it's just so hard to understand. It's hard to understand how you would take it to that extreme. And I really can't understand why. Why would you do that? Why would you kill your children? Why would you kill your spouse? I mean, why not just if he if he was not in love with her or whatever the case may be, just be honest about that and handle your situation. You know, the appropriate way. I don't understand. And it's hard to understand. And I guess for those of us that have, you know, a quote unquote normal mentality, it is hard for us to to wrap our heads, think about the brutal nature in which he disposed of the bodies.

Nicole Santo:
I mean, like you said, he buried Shanann, but he put those little girls in that oil tank.

Michael Lombardo:
And that is just well, the facts are it's really it's really hard that that portion of the documentary is really hard to watch because the kids were at an age where they were cognizant of what was going on.

Michael Lombardo:
And in fact, I think one of them said, Dad, are you going to I forget which one it was. But Dad, are you going to do to me what you did to my sister? I mean, that's wow. That's just hard to watch and hard to believe that someone would would do that.

Nicole Santo:
So essentially, he's charged with a whole host of things, murder, you know.

Michael Lombardo:
I think he got five he his five consecutive he's never going to see the light of day.

Michael Lombardo:
He got five consecutive life sentences and then he did a jailhouse confession later. I mean, later after the fact that he kind of laid everything out, chapter and verse in terms of in terms of what he did.

Nicole Santo:
And just getting back to the interrogation process, what I thought was interesting and I think it was because, you know, he was there voluntarily. You know, you don't see any lawyers involved whatsoever. Obviously, if somebody is being interrogated for a crime, you know, usually they are Mirandized or read their Miranda rights and one of them being that they have a right to an attorney. So it's interesting because I guess because he was there voluntarily, you know, we don't I don't think we can see in the documentary or elsewhere whether he was actually Mirandized after he was charged, but he chose to speak without the assistance, without an attorney there representing him. And that's ultimately when he confesses.

Michael Lombardo:
Yeah, I don't know how. And obviously the gold standard for an investigation is if you can get a confession. I'm not sure how far they had gotten into the forensics of it. I'm not sure how far they had gotten into, for instance, you know, checking his truck to see what what traces of blood or whatever the case may be. We're in his truck processing the home. I think they started doing all that after. He made that first untruthful, quote unquote, confession when he said that he he killed her in the fit of rage. But you're right, it does. It raises a lot of implications. And as we said at the start of the podcast, what's interesting is that we kind of go along on the journey. You kind of get that peek behind the curtain because the confessions were were taped and the producers had access to that material. So that coupled with the, as you said, the body camera footage, we kind of get get to walk all the way through the the process. So it was a pretty interesting perspective.

Nicole Santo:
And I think it's a testament to our times. You know, everything you know, anywhere you go, you could be on camera. You know, there's so much there's such a digital footprint that, you know, fortunately, you know, in this situation that helped, you know, in terms of securing, you know, his confession and ultimately obtaining justice for that family.

Nicole Santo:
So you raised an interesting point, because we're we're civil lawyers. We don't we don't practice criminal law, criminal law as practiced by folks who work at the district attorney's office and people who who work as criminal defense lawyers we're civil attorneys. And this case was a criminal case. There was not and probably will not be a civil aspect of it. So let's talk about that difference between a criminal and civil case. I know for one, and we talked about this before we went on air, I had no idea what the difference between a civil case and a criminal case. And this was best illustrated back in the day with the O.J. Simpson case, because O.J. Simpson, as we all know, famously was acquitted in the criminal case. And then shortly after the criminal case was over, the family of Ron Goldman brought a civil case for civil money damages against O.J. Simpson. And I remember as I guess I was a high school student time as a high school student thinking, well, he got acquitted. How are they getting to try him again? I don't understand this. And I didn't understand that breakdown between criminal and civil law.

Nicole Santo:
And so really essentially just it's all about a difference in terms of mens rea or the intent essentially behind the act and the burden of proof. So essentially, with the criminal case, you're looking at an intentional intentional crime or a reckless endeavor. Whereas when we deal with we deal with negligence for the most part, essentially in terms of people's conduct. But when the big difference in terms of being tried, you know, especially in O.J. Simpson, is the burden of proof. So in a criminal case, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator was guilty. You know, obviously in O.J. Simpson, they did not do that. However, if it's a civil case, you only have to prove the standards, a preponderance of the evidence. So we like to say that if the scales of justice tip ever so slightly in favor of the plaintiff, the person bringing the suit, then you're the verdict must be in favor of the plaintiff. And in that particular case, the family was able to build a case. And in the O.J. Simpson case and the O.J. Simpson case, to demonstrate that O.J. was responsible essentially for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.

Michael Lombardo:
And I think another good way to think of the difference between criminal law and civil law is who's bringing the case right and why are they bringing it so in the criminal world, it's the people bringing the case. That's why the O.J. Simpson case, it wasn't. I think that documentary was the people versus O.J. Simpson. Another great documentary. Yeah. So it's it's the people bringing that case because what you did was so bad. It's a crime against all of us as members of society. And it's the government bringing that case because you've harmed society and it's society that needs to be made whole. And the way that society is made, whole, is by punishing the wrongdoer. So the intention of the criminal system is to punish the wrongdoer and to deter others from so doing that or something similar. Whereas on the civil side, the harm that was perpetrated was against individuals and it's individuals bringing that claim to make them whole. And they're made whole through compensation, through monetary compensation. So the civil justice system is one person against another person trying to be made whole, whereas the criminal system is all of us as a society versus the wrongdoer trying to punish that wrongdoer and deter others. Civil justice we're trying to right a wrong, but we do it as a civilized society. We don't we don't have a duel or we don't duke it out in the street anymore either. And I eye for an eye and I exactly the the way that we settle those things civilly as a civilized society is through monetary damages, which is where folks like us are employed. That's right.

Nicole Santo:
So that's an interesting breakdown and sometimes, you know, we see criminal components of some of our cases. Essentially, we obviously handle a lot of motor vehicle accident cases many times or not many times. But sometimes they involve DUI cases where somebody was drinking under the influence or driving under the influence. And those scenarios, you know, the person might be charged criminally for violating the law, driving under the influence. And then at the same time, we will be pursuing a case from the civil aspect, looking for monetary damages to compensate the individual that that person harmed.

Michael Lombardo:
So let's break that down for an example. If we go out here on Third Avenue and I rear end you, I screw up by my foot, slips off the brake, whatever the case may be, and I rear-end you society doesn't view that as a crime against society as a whole. Right. There's no criminal component to that claim. You have a claim against me to to right the wrongs that I perpetrated against you. But that was more or less what what we would say is an accident. Now, if I had a couple cocktails with the lunch and I was drunk and I did that and it was my intoxication that caused me to run into you, now, that case would have the two components to it. That's a crime against society because I was drinking and driving. And that's something that we as a society obviously look down on. We want to punish and deter. So there'd be a criminal component to that. But you would also still have that civil component against me to compensate you for your losses. So the district attorney's office would pursue that. Right, as a crime against society and you would pursue that individually, civilly for monetary damages to make you whole for any damages that I cost you. And that's a quick and easy way to think of that.

Michael Lombardo:
Right, exactly. So to bring it back to the O.J. Simpson case, the state of California brought a claim against O.J. Simpson for the horrific the horrific acts. But as you indicated, the burden of proof in that claim is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. His legal team, the dream team, was able to plant that doubt in the jury's mind and they didn't convict. However, in the civil case, which is also an interesting story, I don't know if it's brought up in that documentary, but the the similary that prosecuted that case was more of a transactional lawyer. He wasn't really a big time personal injury lawyer, as you would. You would suspect he only had to show that beyond a reasonable excuse me by preponderance of the evidence as the analogy that you gave just kind of tip that scales so slightly, right. That that he caused the deaths that wrongfully caused the deaths in that case of Ron Goldman. And he was able to do that. So they were able to recover monetary damages. So where the state failed on the civil side of things for for monetary compensation, they succeeded. And of course, at that time, O.J. Simpson was a very wealthy person. Not only did he have the lucrative football career, he was in TV.

Michael Lombardo:
He did some acting. He was in the famously in the Hertz commercials. So he had he had means he was a man of means so that they had an ability to recover against him civilly. Whereas in many criminal many cases, for example, in this case, I'm not aware of Shanann's family pursuing any type of action against against Chris Watts because he probably didn't have much to pursue in terms of assets and so forth, as opposed to a guy like O.J. Simpson who obviously was very wealthy. Thanks for watching the latest episode of Firm Thinking. We had a lot of fun watching this documentary, talking about it, talking with you, sharing our thoughts. We're going to have some upcoming podcasts where I'm sure we'll be delving into other true crime. It's a very popular genre as lawyers. Obviously, we like it. I'm sure everybody watching is a big fan also. So we'll be we'll be coming up with some some more interesting topics as to that. If you have something that you want to hear us talk about, if you have an idea for a podcast, by all means, email us. Our email address is appearing on the screen from thinking at HKQLaw.com.

Nicole Santo:
We definitely want hear from you if you want to be a guest or if you know somebody that would be wonderful for our podcast, let us know.

Michael Lombardo:
We also want to save the date. We have a very fun event coming up in December. Annual tradition that despite coronavirus, we're still going to make it happen. That's right. Tell us about that.

Nicole Santo:
Our annual movie Giveaway. We normally do it at the Kirby, but this year, given covid, it's going to be on December 12th at the Garden Drive-In. So mark your calendars. We hope to see you all there. We're still working on the movie selections, but it's going to be some there's going to be some great options for you.

Michael Lombardo:
Yeah, I think you'll be excited and enjoy it. It'll be a nice way to kick off the holiday season, as always.

Nicole Santo:
Thanks for tuning in, we'll see you next time. See you next time.

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