Murder case attorneys contend police destroyed original files

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Winston-Salem Police Department violated its own polices and state law in destroying the original investigative files in the death penalty case of a man accused of kidnapping and decapitating his wife three years ago, defense attorneys argued Thursday.

Copies of those files are available through a document management system, but the attorneys for Juan Carlos Rodriguez contend that copies are not enough because some of them are “incomplete, at times illegible, and materially deficient.”

Rodriguez, 37, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Maria Magdalena Rodriguez, 31, whose body was found Dec. 12, 2010, at the end of Williamsburg Road in the Minorcas Creek area off Bethabara Park Road. She was reported missing after she left the couple’s Trellis Lane home on Nov. 18, 2010. A murder trial in the case is scheduled to start Jan. 27.

At issue are an unknown number of field notes that Winston-Salem police officers took while investigating Maria Rodriguez’s death. Rodriguez’s attorneys, Kim Stevens and Robert Campbell, say those field notes are critical in helping to determine when Maria Rodriguez was killed.

They contend in court papers that Juan Rodriguez was in the Forsyth County Jail when his wife was killed. They also argue that the Winston-Salem Police Department failed to collect crucial physical evidence, including soil and tissue samples.

That leaves, they say, only video and photographs taken at the crime scene and at autopsy as well as the investigative notes that police officers and detectives wrote.

“Now, the defendant has learned, the original investigative files of the Winston-Salem Police Department have been destroyed,” Stevens and Campbell wrote in a memorandum of law filed Thursday. “Those original files are critical and material to the defense of this case.”

The memorandum was in support of a motion to impose sanctions and to strike the death penalty that Stevens and Campbell filed in Forsyth Superior Court on Oct. 15.

The motion was filed in reaction to an email that Stevens and Campbell say they received from Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin the day after Judge William Z. Wood had ordered that they be allowed to inspect the original investigative files from the Winston-Salem Police Department.

Martin told Stevens and Campbell in the email, which was included with the motion, that the original reports are no longer available.

“Long story short, the WSPD doesn’t have the original reports any longer,” Martin said in the email.

During a hearing Thursday before Wood, Martin said that she misspoke when she said that original files had been destroyed. Detectives and police officers type many of their investigative and supplemental reports into a computer, which can then be printed, she said. That means that there really are no “original” files, she said.

The only original files would be handwritten field notes, she said. Depending on the officer or detective, those field notes are either kept or shredded. But either way, the notes are scanned into a document management system called Application Extender, she said.

Lori Sykes, a city attorney who represents the Winston-Salem Police Department, said in a previous interview that paper documents are not destroyed until police staff verifies that every page in the case file folder has been scanned and is legible.

Sykes argued in court Thursday that state law allows the police department to destroy paper records as long as they are maintained in either electronic form or microfiche.

Campbell said in court that state law is clear on the issue — law-enforcement is required to maintain original files as long as a criminal case is pending in court. He and Stevens also argue that it’s impossible to tell what might be missing from the field notes if they only have copies that were scanned.

Wood appeared to agree, but he continued the hearing until Wednesday so that Winston-Salem police and prosecutors can determine how many officers involved in the case kept their field notes. During a 90-minute recess Thursday morning, they were able to determine that at least 19 police officers still had their field notes.

When Stevens emphasized that police should not have destroyed or shredded any field notes, Wood replied: “If the state wants to strike the death penalty (by not complying with the law), I can’t stop them.”

By Michael Hewlett/Winston-Salem Journal

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