Police computer problems latest in series of public safety woes for D.C.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Attorney’s office is reviewing more than two years worth of D.C. prosecutions after it was discovered that defense attorneys weren’t receiving complete copies of police evidence due to a computer glitch.

Attorney Ronald Machen, who serves as the District’s prosecutor, sent a letter Monday to defense attorneys notifying them of the computer and evidence problems. Cases that are set for trial or sentencing this week will be reviewed first.

However Machen cautioned that it’s unclear whether any cases would be overturned because of the problems with the sharing of evidence. He writes that in cases reviewed so far, the omitted information was duplicative of other evidence presented, minor or administrative in scope.

The Washington Post reported the issue with the evidence first came to light as a D.C. police officer was testifying in court that he’d included certain details in his report. But those details were not included in the information compiled for the defense.

The D.C. police department’s computer database, which Machen called an “imperfect system,” is set to be replaced this year.

Still the problems with sharing evidence arose less than two weeks after Machen’s office called into question the DNA results from the city’s forensics lab and on the heels of problems with fire department radios in Metro tunnels. Even the system used to dispatch firefighters has come under question this week.

“We shouldn’t be in this position,” says D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who sits on the council’s judiciary committee.

She called it “extraordinary” that no one had discovered sooner that the police database wasn’t providing a complete report for defense attorneys.

Now those lawyers will be pouring over cases to determine whether they should seek a new trial for their clients, she says.

The city’s public safety technology systems need a general overhaul. And those computer systems need to be checked and rechecked to make sure they are working properly, Cheh says.

“It has such a great effect potentially on life and also people who might be locked up who shouldn’t be,” she says.

Meanwhile the case reviews continue. Staff with the U.S. Attorneys office began combing through cases last weekend.

“Our overriding goal is to preserve and protect the fairness of the criminal justice process. We are working closely with the police department to resolve this issue and move forward with our shared goal of making sure that the innocent are not wrongfully prosecuted and that the criminals who harm our community are rightfully held accountable for their actions,” according to a statement released by Machen’s office.

Machen announced Monday that he would step down from his post effective April 1 to return to private practice. He is the longest serving chief prosecutor to serve D.C. in decades.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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