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Adding to a tragedy

In their zeal to solve the disappearance of Sabrina Aisenberg, authorities misrepresented evidence in seeking continued wiretaps of the baby's parents.

As Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Linda Burton was being cross-examined over the veracity of her sworn applications to extend the wiretapping of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg's home, she looked over at prosecutors and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry."

Maybe those sentiments should have been directed to the Aisenbergs.

On Nov. 24, 1997, the couple reported that their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, had disappeared from their home. The couple claimed the child was kidnapped, but after investigators found no sign of an intruder, suspicion landed on the Aisenbergs themselves. While investigators may have had good reason to focus on the Aisenbergs, that is no excuse for the shoddy, unethical police work that followed.

In an effort to persuade Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez to extend the wiretaps planted in the Aisenberg's Valrico home, Burton and fellow investigators appear to have engaged in a strategic pattern of misrepresentation and omission designed to raise suspicions against the couple.

The Aisenbergs and their lawyers say the two resulting wiretap extensions were obtained illegally and the tapes shouldn't be used against them. Without those 82 days of tapes, prosecutors know that the core of their federal case against the couple for conspiracy and making false statements will fall apart.

A hearing before U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo to determine whether law enforcement officials acted in bad faith in obtaining the extensions ended Dec. 22. While a ruling isn't expected for a few weeks, the testimony was highly damaging to the government.

Conversations between the Aisenbergs caught on audiotape were summarized and transcribed by a series of law enforcement personnel and used as a basis for the wiretaps. But when key taped conversations were reviewed in court, they turned out to be unintelligible or inconsistent with the account offered by the government.

Some of the ostensibly incriminating statements submitted to Judge Alvarez were taken out of context. In one summary, Marlene Aisenberg talks about missing hair and bruises on Sabrina. But authorities purposely failed to note that she was clearly referring to the accusations made by the government that her child had been abused. She then remarks, incredulously, "It's unbelievable."

Judge Alvarez never got to see the transcript of that remark.

The weakness of the government's claims was also illustrated by the authorities' choice of Anthony Pellicano as an expert in tape analysis. Pellicano, who dropped out of high school and later earned a GED, has testified as an audio expert more than 100 times in court but has no formal training in the field of mathematics or engineering. The government chose to seek out the Los Angeles-based Pellicano, who has earned a reputation as a self-promoting witness for hire, rather than use readily available authorities with a record of honest tape analysis. A former FBI audio expert testified that Pellicano's "enhanced" recordings were "audible but not intelligible."

In applying to Judge Alvarez for the wiretap extension, detectives wrote that Sabrina showed signs of child abuse as confirmed by Dr. Laleh Posey. But Posey's testimony was not that conclusive. She testified that, after having looked at photos of Sabrina, she told investigators that what appeared to be missing hair on the left side of the infant's head and a bruising under one of her eyes might have been caused by abuse, but she could not be certain. Meanwhile, interviews with witnesses who had seen Sabrina within days of her disappearance, and who said they saw a happy child with no signs of abuse or bruises, were either not included in the wiretap application or were manipulated to create suspicion of abuse.

Our criminal justice system is responsible for bringing the guilty to justice. But just as important, it provides a series of safeguards to prevent citizens from having their privacy unduly invaded by authorities. A wiretap in one's home, especially when a bug is placed in the bedroom as happened in this case, is a highly intrusive investigative tool that can be justified only when there is credible evidence of serious crimes on the part of the targets. Deputies still haven't shown that they had such evidence against the Aisenbergs when they sought their wiretaps, but they went forward anyway.

Such unprofessionalism has the potential to destroy the government's case. It also risks undermining the community's faith in law enforcement. The case of Sabrina Aisenberg, which still demands justice, has become a tragedy from every perspective.