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Death penalty in case still in play for Winston-Salem man

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The death penalty is still on the table for a Winston-Salem man accused of kidnapping and decapitating his wife three years ago, a Forsyth County judge ruled Wednesday.

Juan Carlos Rodriguez is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Maria Magdalena Rodriguez, 31. Her 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.

Robert Campbell and Kim Stevens, attorneys for Juan Rodriguez, argued in a hearing Wednesday that the Winston-Salem Police Department violated its own policies and state law in destroying original investigative files in the case, particularly field notes.

They argued that the destruction of the field notes constituted an irreparable discovery violation and asked that Judge William Z. Wood of Forsyth Superior Court impose sanctions and strike the death penalty from the case.

After a nearly three-hour hearing Wednesday, Wood dismissed the motion filed by Campbell and Stevens, meaning that Rodriguez will continue to face the death penalty.

The trial is scheduled to start Jan. 27.

Copies of the investigative files are available through a document management system, but Stevens and Campbell argued that those copies are not enough because some of them are “incomplete, at times illegible, and materially deficient.”

On Wednesday, Sgt. Tim Taylor testified that he and Lt. Rob Cozart tried to contact 81 police officers and detectives who helped investigate to determine if they still had their original field notes. At least eight police officers indicated they did not have their field notes.

During cross-examination, Campbell noted that there were officers at the crime scene whose names were not on the list, including the name of the police officer who was the first to see the body of Maria Rodriguez.

But Det. Sean Flynn of the Winston-Salem Police Department said under examination by prosecutors that some police officers at the crime scene did not participate in the investigation and, as a result, were not required to write notes or reports.

Flynn also testified that some field notes were discovered recently during a review of the investigative files that was ordered by Wood. Campbell and Stevens argued that was proof that the scanning process the police department uses is imperfect.

Lori Sykes, a city attorney who represents the Winston-Salem Police Department, had 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.

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

Campbell and Stevens strongly disagreed with that interpretation of state law.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said in court Wednesday that state law makes no mention of the word “original.”

Wood said in his ruling that the police department and prosecutors have complied with state law and that he had not heard anything that has unfairly prejudiced Juan Rodriguez.

“You’ve not been surprised,” he said.