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    A Times Editorial

    A breakdown in the justice system

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 3, 2002

    They talked about salad. Or cocaine. Or hurting the baby. Or something. The tapes of conversations between Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, caught by a government bug, are too garbled to determine with any degree of certainty what the couple discussed following the disappearance of their baby, Sabrina.

    That prosecutors claimed to find the tapes "sufficiently audible" to make a case against the Aisenbergs was an alarming breakdown in criminal justice on all levels, one that calls for sanctions against police and prosecutors.

    It is difficult to overstate the misconduct of law enforcement in this case. Prosecutors pinned their case on flawed tapes, and then created a backdrop of guilt and suspicion that framed public opinion.

    Barry Cohen, the Aisenbergs' attorney, said for years the tapes would point to the couple's innocence. Released last month, the tapes reveal why the intrusive act of bugging demands the highest diligence by law enforcement.

    Audio recordings of the couple's conversations are poor and open to interpretation. Detectives admitted they mistook the word "abusing" for the word "immunity." Prosecutors and audio experts disagree sharply on what was said. In the end, the case collapsed after a federal judge found several tapes unintelligible.

    So what does this say about the detectives who investigated, the state prosecutors who applied for wiretaps, the judge who authorized them and the federal prosecutors who were prepared to take this evidence to a jury?

    It is not enough that the government pay Cohen's multimillion-dollar legal fees. Those involved should be accountable for their conduct in the case. That includes not only the detectives and federal prosecutors, but also Hillsborough County Judge Eric Myers, then an assistant state prosecutor.

    Their mistakes abused the Aisenbergs' constitutional rights, complicated the search for Sabrina and made it more unlikely the person or persons responsible would be brought to justice.

    The danger posed by this style of crime-fighting transcends any prejudice the public may have about the Aisenbergs' behavior or candor. Every defendant enjoys the presumption of innocence. But that right exists only in theory if officers of the court bend, break and manipulate the checks and balances that are intended to protect us all.

    The most charitable view of what happened in the Aisenberg case is that layer after layer of the criminal court system rationalized shoddy work to pursue a conviction. That's a scary thought.

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