Virus attack gets convicted murderer a new trial

Stenographer broke Geek Prime Directive: Never trust computers with anything irreplaceable

It's pretty rare for anyone to be grateful for a major IT virus infection, especially when the virus involved is designed as a vandal that destroys data or other resources without creating any other benefit even for the developer.

The virus that destroyed data on the hard drive of a court reporter, however, is giving a Florida man a second chance to defend himself after being convicted of murder in July 2009 and sentenced to life in prison.

A Miami court of appeals ruled there should be a new trial for 26-year-old Randy Chaviano, who was convicted in Miami of the 2005 shooting death of Carlos Acosta – a neighbor in the same Hialeah, Fla. duplex in which Chaviano lived – after what prosecutors said was an argument over drugs Acosta tried to buy from Chaviano.

During the trial court reporter Terlesa Cowart relied on the hard drive contained in her transcription machine rather than recording every word of the trial on both disk and on paper, as do most stenographers who work as court reporters, according to the Miami Herald.

After the trial Cowart transferred the transcription records from the stenography machine to her computer, to free up space on the stenography unit, but the files were destroyed when a virus struck her computer before she could print or back up the notes.

No transcript = no proof the first trial was fair

Though it had nothing to do with Cowart and her records, Chaviano did appeal his conviction and the jury's rejection of his claim that he shot Acosta in self defense. Prosecutors had argued successfully that Chaviano shot Acosta, then planted a gun on the body to make it look as if Acosta had attacked him.

After the virus had finished with Cowart's trial records, however, the only transcripts available for the trial covered one pretrial hearing and the closing arguments of prosecutors and defense attorneys.

That, according to the court of appeals, left prosecutors with too little evidence to show the trial had been conducted fairly. Without a record there was no way to evaluate whether Chaviano was justified in complaining that one key witness had testified improperly that there was not enough evidence to support Chaviano's claim the shooting was in self defense.

Nearly all court reporters capture two copies of transcription records: one on disk within the stenography machine, the other on special rolls of paper that fit in the machine like the paper point-of-sale devices use to print receipts.

Court should have asked a geek: Never trust computer with the only copy of anything irreplaceable

Cowart, according to information provided to the Herald by her employer at the time, was in the habit of bringing to court too few rolls of that paper to capture transcripts of all the events of the day.

Instead she, and therefore the court, had to depend on the integrity of the copies transcripts stored on disk, in direct violation of the policies of her employer, according to the company, Goldman Naccarato Patterson Vela & Associates Inc.

“The overturning of a murder conviction always means terrible pain for the victim’s family and frustration for prosecutors and police officers,” according to quotes from Miami-Dade State Attorney’s spokesman Ed Griffith in the Miami Sun-Sentinel. “Overturning a murder conviction because of a court reporter’s problem creates a brand new level of pain and frustration.”

The case helped push the 11th Judicial Circuit to wire all the courtrooms at Miami-Dade's criminal courthouse with digital sound recorders on which to make its own recording of trials. None of the courts had previously been fitted with either cameras or sound recording equipment.

Court stenographers are resisting the upgrade as a threat to their jobs.

Chaviano's conviction was thrown out last week. His new trial on charges of second degree murder has not yet been scheduled. He will remain in prison while he waits.

Reports don't detail which virus attacked Cowart's computer or whether the courts are adding security to avoid more malware damage.

Cowart, the stenographer, has since been fired.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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