Judge denies defense request to drop charge
Steele's attorneys argue the case should be dismissed because of missing evidence.
By JAMAL THALJI
Published April 10, 2007
DADE CITY - The defense failed in its last-minute bid Monday to have the murder charge against Alfredie Steele Jr. dismissed a week before the start of his trial.
But not before putting the Pasco County Sheriff's Office on trial.
At issue: a piece of metal - perhaps a bullet fragment - from the 2003 death of Pasco sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison that was lost just three days after he was fatally shot. The defense said it only recently learned the evidence was lost while in the custody of sheriff's forensic investigators nearly four years ago.
"It's disturbing in that the sheriff's department, through their forensic investigation division, lost a piece of evidence," said assistant public defender Jason Bavol. "It appears there was a coverup of it."
That's because the forensic investigators never mentioned the missing evidence when defense lawyers questioned them in 2003.
The defense originally claimed it learned of it only last week.
It turns out they never read interagency memos about the missing evidence that they received in 2004.
"This is the second time the defense has filed a motion like this accusing the state and the Sheriff's Office of withholding evidence," said assistant state attorney Bob Lewis, "and each time after they got their publicity they made a private phone call to make an apology."
The state hinted at Monday's hearing that it's not sure the missing evidence was a bullet, or even metallic.
But Lewis did concede that whatever it was, losing it was not good.
"It is an embarrassment for the technician, it is an embarrassment for the sheriff's department," he said. "But it is not something that should result in any sanction at all."
Senior Judge Robert Beach agreed, denying the defense's motion to drop the first-degree murder charge against Steele, 23.
The defense was particularly hard on forensic investigator Denice Weigand, who first reported the missing evidence. She said her entire department spent the Thursday, Friday and Monday after Harrison's murder looking for the fragment.
"Was it not important enough to look on the weekend for the missing piece of evidence?" Bavol asked.
"We were not on duty," Weigand said.
The investigator was asked why at one point while handling the evidence she didn't tape up the bag that held it. Weigand said there was no policy requiring it.
"So it's just free willy-nilly how you transport evidence in the murder of a sheriff's officer?" Bavol asked.
"I wouldn't say it's willy-nilly," Weigand said. "But there is no policy."
Then she said there was a policy - she just couldn't recall it.
"You worked there 21 years, you don't know what the policy is?" Bavol said.
Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said it was unfortunate that the evidence was lost.
"Rare is the criminal case that does not have some errors or mistakes," he said. "And if it's magnified by the publicity this trial has gotten for obvious reasons, those errors are going to be magnified immensely."
But Doll added, "Rarer still are charges that have been dismissed for those kind of mistakes."