May 20, 2023
(TNS) — Dallas police are struggling to access physical and digital evidence amid an ongoing ransomware attack that is disrupting trials, according to defense lawyers who are exasperated after more than three months of pervasive evidence storage issues.
The consequences played out Thursday in a murder trial, where a man was found guilty despite evidence being unavailable to jurors or lawyers. Last week, a jury couldn't reach a unanimous verdict in another murder trial, where police were unable to produce a phone or shell casings.
"It's the Stone Age again," said Douglas Huff, president of the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
"This has pretty extensive implications," he said. "Ultimately, all of this is causing horrendous delays and a clear message is that justice that is delayed is justice that is denied."
The ransomware attack initiated by the group Royal on the city of Dallas has stretched into a third week, downing several departments. The city has said it could take weeks or months until services are fully restored.
While the county, which administers the courts, is not directly affected, some cases could be paused because electronic evidence catalogs are inoperable, communication is breaking down and internal police share drives and servers are compromised, according to attorneys.
Before the attack, the Dallas Police Department's digital media evidence team was already sorting through hundreds of murder and capital murder cases to look for deleted digital evidence — an "incredible problem" affecting people accused of crimes, Huff said. That review is now on hold, according to police spokeswoman Kristin Lowman.
Claire Crouch, a spokeswoman for the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, said Wednesday that it would be impossible to determine whether any cases would be affected by the ransomware attack. The next day, the office sent out a news release saying prosecutors are working with Dallas police to "mitigate the impact."
"We understand that timeliness is crucial in maintaining public safety and public trust, and we remain resolute in our dedication to upholding the law and ensuring that cases are filed and prosecuted effectively," the statement Thursday said.
"We anticipate that the longer this goes on, the greater chance for obligations on the DA's part will be affected."
Lowman said city officials are working to bring the police evidence cataloging software back online. Without elaborating, she said police are manually accepting, inventorying and retrieving evidence, and the property unit is locating evidence.
The department did not immediately respond to a request late Thursday afternoon for comment about specific cases cited by defense attorneys as having inaccessible evidence.
Additionally, the city's municipal courts have slowed to a crawl. According to a notice posted on the Dallas Municipal Court's website, there will be no court hearings, trials or jury duty for the duration of the outage.
Ripple effect in Dallas courtrooms
Ivan Joey Piedra was found guilty of murder Thursday for the slaying of 18-year-old Mark Lemmons. His attorney, Tom Cox, told jurors in closing arguments that shell casings, a DVR with surveillance video and a recorded interview with an eyewitness to the shooting were inaccessible during the trial.
Cox called it "rough justice."
"There is a grave danger of injustice in one direction or the other," Cox told The Dallas Morning News while sitting outside the courtroom awaiting the verdict. "Police may not be able to bring crucial evidence to court in order to convict people that broke the law, but also innocent people who have been accused … can't clear their name because that evidence can't be presented."
Piedra faces up to life in prison.
"The best that the defense can hope for is that they can take the evidence and show the truth to a jury," Cox said. "It's just so disheartening to find out that even that basic, fundamental truth no longer exists."
In another case, defense attorney George Ashford said prosecutors and police weren't able to produce the cellphone and shell casings — only photos of the casings and some phone data — during the murder trial of Trevis Armstead, which he said ended with a hung jury last week. Armstead is charged in the June 28, 2019, killing of Kendrick Ruben.
Ashford doesn't believe the mistrial was a result of the unproduced evidence, with the caveat that prosecutors' inability to prove where the data originated may have affected the outcome.
He said police evidence issues came up again in a pretrial hearing Thursday for Dre London, who faces a charge of compelling prostitution, because prosecutors weren't able to access vital phone data. Ashford said he may file a motion to delay that case.
"You really don't know until you start looking into the case and saying, 'Well, OK, this is a key piece of evidence,'" Ashford said. "If it's locked up in the property room, nobody can get to it. I mean, who knows?"
'Spits and spatters'
The News broke the story in early March about an audit of homicide cases amid police evidence storage issues. Police officials opened the internal review into about 450 pending murder and capital murder cases after a high-profile trial was delayed in January because the lead detective failed to give lawyers hundreds of videos.The review won't end there. Police plan to assess all violent crimes going back to 2016. Police usually record more than 10,000 violent crimes annually.
A Dallas police official previously said some evidence was deleted due to human error, like detectives not saving them quickly enough in case files or improperly labeling videos. Others may have been deleted because of DPD's processes, he said.
The News learned about at least 14 cases with deleted evidence through a public records request with the district attorney's office. The office has appealed other records requests about the audit to the Texas Attorney General's Office to prevent the release of information.
It remains unclear how many cases have been reviewed by Dallas police. The department has repeatedly declined to release details about the probe, referencing a past statement that the audit will be "thorough and complete" and has no set timeline.
City officials also have scarcely publicly commented on Dallas police's evidence issues. At the City Council's last three public safety meetings, evidence loss was mentioned either briefly or not at all.
Huff said information has come out in "spits and spatters" for attorneys, too, and prosecutors are often blindsided.
In the absence of a solution to the courthouse disarray, Huff said defendants' are stuck in legal purgatory; their jobs may be on hold, or they may be unable to look for new work, which could cause a ripple effect on their loved ones. And delays in the justice system don't just affect the accused."The families of the victims are waiting for closure," Huff said. "And it's not happening.
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