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.

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