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Judge orders lawyers in Schenecker case to whittle down computer files

TAMPA — Before the two children were shot to death, the Scheneckers were a busy Internet family — shopping, studying and communicating with each other and everyone else on their computers.

On Thursday, an assistant public defender described a bottomless pit of emails, Internet searches, Facebook exchanges and hundreds of thousands of other items retrieved from computers in the Schenecker home. Somewhere in there could be evidence in the death penalty case against Julie Schenecker, 51, accused of murdering her two teenagers, Calyx and Beau, early last year.

For months, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ashley Moody has been pressing attorneys for a strategy and schedule for plowing through the data. She asked Thursday how many items the defense had read so far. Assistant Public Defender Robert Fraser told her, "I read several this morning."

"This morning?" Moody said, visibly frustrated. "It's been five months and you can't even tell me what you've got."

Although the shootings occurred 15 months ago, no trial date has been set for Schenecker. Death penalty cases often take two to three years of preparation. The complexity of this one is compounded by the modern-day issue of electronic evidence, which courts everywhere are now confronting. Moody's frustration was that attorneys can't see the end of the beginning of preparation, much less the beginning of the end.

Under the law, defendants are entitled to see all the evidence the state has against them. "My concern," the judge said in January, "is in this new age of electronic data, we're not giving the defense so much data that it's unsearchable."

She asked attorneys to find a way through masses of data that could serve as a model for courts throughout the country.

But she was told Thursday that the Public Defender's Office still hasn't read much and doesn't know how long or how many people it will take. One big problem is that any potential evidence needs to be read by attorneys.

"This is completely unprecedented," defense attorney Fraser told the judge. "The manpower needed is almost impossible to predict."

Not a good enough answer, the judge said.

"You tell me you just started looking this morning," she said. "We need to make this a priority. Please put manpower on it. Put in the time that's necessary."

Moody gave the Public Defender's Office and State Attorney's Office until July 12 to tell her what evidence in the data needs to be protected from public view and what can be released.

"Deadlines aren't requests," she said. "They're orders."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@tampabay.com.

Judge orders lawyers in Schenecker case to whittle down computer files 05/31/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 31, 2012 11:20pm]
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