Lawyers say they need a year to review computer files in Schenecker case

Julie Schenecker's defense says it will take a year to read 1.4 million computer files.

Published August 3 2012
Updated August 4 2012

TAMPA — For months, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ashley Moody has tried to pin down the Public Defender's Office on how much evidence is on computers taken from the home of Julie Schenecker, her husband and the two teenage children she is accused of murdering.

Next week, Moody gets her answer: 1.14 million separate files that lawyers say will take a year to read.

Two national experts in computer forensics say a million files sound probable, but question the need for Schenecker's defenders to read them all — even in a death-penalty case.

"The old idea of linear review — of a defense attorney laying his eye on every page — is not a feasible idea in the digital age," said Craig Ball, a court-appointed special master and consultant in computer forensics and e-discovery in Austin, Texas.

All year, the Public Defender's Office has described a bottomless pit of emails, Internet searches, Facebook exchanges and thousands of other data retrieved from five computers in the Schenecker home after the children's deaths in January 2011. Somewhere in there could be evidence against Schenecker, 51. She has pleaded not guilty to two counts of premeditated first-degree murder.

The murders shocked the bay area. Schenecker is charged with using a .38-caliber pistol to shoot her 13-year-old son Beau in the head after driving him home from soccer practice. Police said Schenecker then walked upstairs and shot her 16-year-old daughter Calyx in the back of the head as she did her homework. Schenecker stayed in the Tampa Palms house all night. Law enforcement discovered Schenecker the next morning after they got a call from her mother in Texas, who was unable to reach her and feared that she was depressed.

Schenecker told police she shot her children because she was tired of them talking back to her.

The judge in Schenecker's case has been told that all the data needs to be combed by attorneys to determine what is evidence and what is not. "This is completely unprecedented," Assistant Public Defender Robert Fraser said in June. "The manpower needed is almost impossible to predict."

After Moody demanded a firm count of the data and a deadline for review, Fraser and Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner agreed in writing that there were 93 DVDs of "forensically acquired" evidence from the five computers. Those were examined by a court-appointed expert in electronic discovery, Tampa attorney William Hamilton.

"The defense estimates a manual review of each of the 1,140,087 files will take approximately 2,071 hours or 51.78 weeks," the response said.

Neither Texas expert Ball nor Glenn Dardick, editor-in-chief of the Virginia-based Journal of Digital Forensics, Security and Law, questioned that the Schenecker computers contained a million files. Computers in any home might contain an equal number, they said. Neither expert was familiar with the Schenecker case.

But they contended Friday that there are basic, inexpensive ways to quickly winnow out tens of thousands of data that have no relevance.

Dardick cited a legal principle called "Occam's Razor," the law of parsimony, which he translates as "that which is not relevant is cut away."

Irrelevant data would include thousands of installation files and program files such as Microsoft Office common in every computer.

Other irrelevant files could include "substantial duplication of data," Ball said, such as emails copied into multiple computers.

In this case, attorneys are looking for evidence of premeditation or evidence of mental incapacity. Schenecker has a long mental health and drug history, and among her emails was one to her mother that was considered suicidal.

But Dardick said filtering of the data could eliminate many mundane files, such as visits to the Weather Channel or searching for shoes on A lot of that, he said, could be identified by simple keyword searches.

Ball said lay people who are not lawyers, but who are trained in discovery searches, could cull obviously harmless data. When there's doubt, data could be set aside for attorney review, he said, "but most information doesn't fall into a gray area. It comes to a point where a lawyer looking at everything is not reasonable or practical."

Neither the State Attorney's Office nor Public Defender's Office commented on Friday. Judge Moody is scheduled to review the matter on Friday.

Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this story. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]