Witness descriptions of criminal suspects are often overwritten in computer records to reflect the descriptions of suspects later taken into custody by police, a Denver detective testified recently.
Defense attorneys say the system’s flaws hide potentially exculpatory evidence, but the Denver Police Department denied that any evidence is intentionally overwritten or withheld.
Police spokesman Lt. Matt Murray on Tuesday said the detective who testified misunderstood how the computer record system works, and Murray promised a department-wide refresher course on how to take and preserve witness statements.
“We have some inconsistencies we need to address in the department. We’re clearly not doing it right all the time,” Murray said. “It’s an officer’s duty to report their observations. We feel strongly about getting that right.”
Murray couldn’t say how frequently such problems may occur.
Some defense attorneys believe these mistakes are intentional.
Inaccurate or incomplete information from police, they say, affects a prosecutor’s ability to determine whether to pursue charges and the ability of the accused to build effective defenses.
“Their method is completely flawed,” said Michael Sheehan, a Denver defense attorney. “Who knows how many people’s due-process rights have been violated?”
He said he discovered the discrepancies “by accident” during a trial in December — and quickly became alarmed.
Sheehan was representing 25-year-old Marcus Montoya in an Arapahoe County burglary case.
Prosecutors brought up Montoya’s conviction — along with two other men — in a 2009 burglary in Denver, intending to show a criminal pattern.
In that case, a Denver woman told police she caught a brief glimpse of three Hispanic men as they fled her home after a break-in.
At trial, Sheehan questioned Denver Detective Robin Gray and discovered the victim’s original description of the three suspects had vanished from his 2009 police report.
But after further investigation by prosecutors and Sheehan, the Denver woman’s original description came to light.
The discovery of the missing evidence resulted in a mistrial. Montoya, already imprisoned on an unrelated charge, has since struck a plea agreement, resulting in no additional prison time.
“It was exculpatory. She said, ‘The guy I saw was Mexican,’ ” Sheehan said. “His last name is Montoya, but he looks like a typical white guy.”
On the witness stand, Gray described a 5-year-old electronic report system in which witnesses’ first-blush descriptions are routinely overwritten to reflect descriptions of the suspects police later take into custody.
“Obviously, we are going through some growing pains and still have problems,” Gray said, according to court transcripts. “Once the detective gets it, as information is updated and clarified and verified, then the information … in that computer system gets changed and updated and verified.”
Gray at first said there was no way to track those changes. He later told investigators that the department’s Information Management Unit had never before tried to access and export logs of changes.
Murray said that may have been Gray’s understanding of the VersaDex system, but it’s not accurate.
When a detective edits a report, VersaDex generates a somewhat cryptic log — Sheehan described it as “gibberish” — noting who made the change, when the change was made and what the original entry indicated.
Those reports should be turned over to attorneys prosecuting and defending cases, although Murray admitted this isn’t always the case.
Officers also should avoid losing original suspect descriptions by writing them into the narrative section of reports, which are less likely to be changed, Murray said.
Gray indicated in court that he understood department policy to be the opposite.
“In this case, there was a training issue,” Murray said.
Civil-rights attorney David Lane said he plans to take a look at the situation. He doesn’t believe a training issue is to blame and threatened litigation.
“These guys aren’t stupid. They understand how the system works,” Lane said. “When a cop falsifies police reports, it’s a crime. If we can make a case against the Denver Police Department on this, I will go after them as hard as I can.”
Source: The Denver Post, “Denver police’s witness-description computer system under fire,” by Jessica Fender, February 15, 2012.