Karr computer missing

On the day prosecutors offered John Mark Karr a plea bargain, Sonoma County sheriff's officials Tuesday acknowledged they lost a computer containing images used to charge Karr with possessing child pornography.

A sheriff's spokesman said the computer - one of at least two seized from Karr's Petaluma residence in April 2001 - may have been missing since early 2002.

Karr gained national notoriety last month when he admitted, apparently falsely, on television in Bangkok, Thailand, that he had been present at the 1996 slaying of 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colo.

"It appears that in the move from the old office to the new building, it was either lost or accidentally purged. But, no, we have not been able to locate it," Sheriff's Lt. Dave Edmonds said Tuesday.

Printed copies of five images, which purportedly show children in sexual situations and a detailed report of the hard drive contents were retained, Edmonds said.

"The loss of the original media is a mistake. It was an error, definitely," he said. "It is unfortunate, but we don't think that significantly changes the provability of the case."

Assistant District Attorney Larry Scoufos said the loss of the original source of the evidence will not critically damage the case.

"We think we will still get in the evidence that we need," he said. "We feel we have sufficient evidence to still link the images to Mr. Karr."

Karr's attorneys, who learned of the missing evidence from a reporter, were shocked at the revelation. They said they are exploring the ramifications of the problem and are considering what steps to take before hearings scheduled for next week.

"I wonder if that was the impetus of the offer today," said Rob Ampar?, one of three San Francisco lawyers representing Karr in the misdemeanor case. "It seems like a pretty embarrassing mistake for the Sheriff's Department to admit."

Scoufos, however, said there was no connection between the two developments.

Earlier in the day, prosecutors offered Karr a plea bargain with fewer charges that would require no further jail time but would force him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Ampar? said he would discuss the offer with his client, but he insisted Karr is innocent of the child porn possession charges filed in 2001.

"We feel very confident we will ultimately be successful in exonerating him of these charges," he said.

Ampar? said the loss of the computer could be just as damaging for the defense as for the prosecution. He said he'd hoped a defense expert in forensic computer examination would be able to use the computer to find evidence in Karr's favor.

"That computer had evidence that Mr. Karr was not only not guilty, but innocent of the charges," he said. He declined to be more specific until he consulted with his computer expert.

Other attorneys said the defense could move to exclude the evidence - the crux of the prosecution's case - because the defense cannot independently examine the source of the evidence.

Karr, briefly a substitute teacher in Petaluma and Napa in 2001, is facing five misdemeanor counts of possessing pornographic images of children, for which he served more than five months in the Sonoma County Jail in 2001.

Karr was arrested Aug. 16 in Thailand and brought back to the United States amid worldwide media coverage after his extraordinary admission in the Ramsey slaying.

After Colorado authorities said DNA evidence cleared Karr in the case, Sonoma County took the unusual step of extraditing Karr to face the 5-year-old misdemeanor charges.

In court Tuesday, prosecutor Joan Risse announced she was extending a plea offer for Karr: The District Attorney's Office would drop three of the charges if Karr admitted to two others. He would not be required to serve more time in custody, but prosecutors would seek three years of formal probation.

The plea agreement also would require Karr to register under the state's Megan's Law as a sex offender.

The missing computer raises serious questions about the viability of the prosecution's case, a former prosecutor said.

"It's not necessarily a case-killer, but it will make things difficult for the district attorney," said Roy Miller, a former Lake County prosecutor who received FBI training in forensic computer examination.

"If this case goes to trial, they're going to have to tell the jury they screwed up the most basic thing in this case - the computer evidence," said Miller, now a defense lawyer. "It's like showing up for a murder trial and saying, 'Oops, I lost the bloody knife, I lost the smoking gun.' It's not necessarily fatal, but it is a problem."

It was not immediately clear Tuesday precisely when authorities discovered the computer was missing. But during a court proceeding three weeks ago, on Aug. 29, prosecutor Risse told Judge Cerena Wong that the investigation had been reopened and that experts were examining the computer.

Her statement came as the District Attorney's Office was opposing efforts by The Press Democrat to unseal the 2001 search warrant that had led to the child porn charges.

"A lot of what's in the search warrant relates to the forensic computer exam; and that's being redone because there is newer equipment and newer procedures that we can obtain more off of the computer than we could back in 2001," Risse said in court.

"I'm really not sure if that's going to bring forth more material. So there is an ongoing investigation going on relative to the computer," she said, according to the official transcript.

Wong refused to unseal the court records, citing in part, the "reopened" investigation.

The Sheriff's Department moved into its new building in April 2002 - a year after Karr's arrest and about three months after original trial dates in Karr's case. Karr failed to appear for a hearing in October 2001 and a warrant was issued in December of that year.

Edmonds said the computer may have been accidentally thrown out with more than 40,000 other items of evidence purged from sheriff's storage when the department changed buildings. Each year, about 20,000 items of evidence are stored for active criminal cases.

Miller said Karr's defense may be able to argue for the suppression of the computer evidence because they will not have the opportunity to examine its original source.

The prosecution, including law enforcement and the District Attorney's Office, has an obligation until a case is resolved to retain evidence that will be used against a defendant in court, he said.

Edmonds said detectives haven't found evidence on Karr's other computers.

A laptop returned with Karr from Thailand is in the hands of federal authorities, and Sonoma County detectives are working with them to determine whether there may be any evidentiary value in it, Edmonds said.

Also Tuesday, Wong set Karr's bail at $200,000, saying he is a flight risk. Such a bail would require $20,000 in cash bond and $200,000 in collateral.

Ampar? said it was unlikely Karr could raise the bond to secure his release.

Wong also confirmed the trial date for Oct. 2 and ordered a panel of prospective jurors to be called to the courtroom.

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