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."