Convicted murderer gets new trial after computer virus destroys data

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Malware

Randy ChavianoIt seems like the plot twist in a bad TV show - but it's true. A computer virus infection has helped a convicted killer get a new trial.

In July 2009, a Miami jury convicted Randy Chaviano, of Hialeah, Florida, of second degree murder.

Many might have thought it was the end of story when, after an eight day trial, Chaviano was given a life sentence for the shooting of Carlos Acosta.

But when the courts recently investigated whether Chaviano had grounds to appeal his conviction, it was discovered that no legal record of the trial could be found - giving the Third District Court of Appeal no choice but to throw out the conviction and grant Chaviano a new trial.

StenographStenographers at trials normally record proceedings on both paper and an internal disk. You've probably seen them busy at work, tapping wildly in the corner of the shot if you've ever seen a courtroom melodrama.

But Terlesa Cowart, the stenographer at Chaviano's 2009 trial, had not brought enough rolls of paper for her machine, forcing her to record details of the trial only on the device's internal disk. Subsequently, she transferred the data onto her PC, and erased it from the stenograph.

You can see where this is leading can't you?

An infection on Ms Cowart's PC by an unnamed virus is said to resulted in the loss of the legal records.

As a result, the trial has to be reheard, costing time and money, and witnesses and police officers will need to give evidence once again. And, of course, the relatives of the deceased man will have to go through the heartache of another trial.

It seems very sloppy to allow the only record of a trial's proceedings to be held on an individual's PC - it's like asking for trouble if it isn't at the very least held securely as a backup elsewhere.

It's claimed that stenographers in Florida have been resisting moves to replace them with digital recorders. Goofs like the one made by Terlesa Cowart are not going to do anything to help their argument.

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14 Responses to Convicted murderer gets new trial after computer virus destroys data

  1. Sean · 836 days ago

    Good post, Graham.

    “It's claimed that stenographers in Florida have been resisting moves to replace them with digital recorders. Goofs like the one made by Terlesa Cowart are not going to do anything to help their argument.”

    Replace “them”? Does that mean to replace the human stenographers with automated systems and digital recorders? DIGITAL recorders? But doesn't that mean there would be no paper copy by default?

    Despite this one small human error, I think I'd argue for keeping the humans and the paper that they produce! :-)

    Imagine the pain if a hacker accesses the digital archive server and deletes everything…

  2. Sally Valentine · 836 days ago

    This is very unfortunate, indeed! I am a court reporter in Virginia, and I am surprised that this reporter did not take greater steps to make sure she had some sort of backup. My Stenograph writer has two SD cards, so I am constantly writing to two sources. I also use a laptop equipped with wireless technology, so no matter where I move in the room, I am writing to the laptop. In addition, when I'm in court, I record everything on a digital recorder. While it is true that this court reporter did not cover herself in case of a technical failure, problems happen in courts that rely on tape recorders exclusively as well. Mistakes can and do happen, that's why it's important to do whatever you can to avoid them!

    • Reggie Wheeler · 834 days ago

      I would advise that you not have your laptop connected to a wireless access point while you're recording something as important and sensitive as a court transcript. Some curious hacker sniffing the courts wifi traffic could stumble upon your stenograph and your laptop. If you have a stenograph that will allow you to connect wirelessly to a network then you should inquire with the counties IT if the courthouse that you're working in has a separate wireless access point dedicated to government traffic.

  3. Padraic McGrath · 836 days ago

    Another reason to use a good, free OS like Ubuntu!

  4. Sharp · 836 days ago

    Nothing new here. I remember a similar occurance, when I went to court and they had no record of me sitting in their jail cells over night. They made me go back to the jail to sit in holding for 15 mins and took fingerprints the old fashioned way. City Police stations, and courts think they are secure, but there really is no security for these small town stations. They just think because it's police or government that they deal with, that they sit on some type of invisible barrier from infection. It's what hackers really want, not personal information on 1 individual.

    Personally, Records like this should not be stored on personal computers, and if these are personal PCs they should be locked down by policies to keep them safe, or not used at all for business. I wish I would have known about this, great way to gain internal access into a secure network at the expense of a dumb user.

    I also though the courts supplied the stenographers and supplies. They should have stopped the procceedings so she could have walked down the hall to grab more paper. I am willing to bet there was no virus and the lady was in on it the entire time.

  5. Does anyone have any more details on this story?

    How did the infection actually result in the "loss of the legal records"? Did the virus/malware destroy the data? Did someone wipe the computer to eradicate an infection without backing up the user's data? Was the computer written off because Windows wouldn't boot?

    Do we even know if "virus" is just an excuse for the user deleting the file by mistake?

    It isn't even clear from this story (or the other articles I've read online about it) whether the computer in question is her own personal one or a work PC.

    It might help a little if we knew which articles were used as the source for this post.

    • If we'd had more detail we would have shared it here - we're just as curious as you are. :) Feel free to Google the names of the individuals concerned as it has been widely reported.

  6. Darth Vader · 836 days ago

    Fire the incompetent.

  7. Vandelay · 835 days ago

    Some Forensic Analysis can help getting that data back, even if the drive has been formatted, I would do it for free as a service to the community in not letting that guy go on the streets again

    • Niels · 822 days ago

      Your efforts might be useless: Unless the stenographer machine digitally signs exported data the chain of custody was broken when the data was moved to an uncontrolled device. The recordings could have been altered, and so they will be inadmissible anyways. Besides, it appears you have a bias against mr Chaviano.

      Cheap convictions should never be a goal in a court system.

  8. Reggie Wheeler · 834 days ago

    It has to be said again and again. "Back-up your work"!!

  9. Able Cain · 834 days ago

    Another issue is that court reporters are hardly ever accurate. When you listen to the recording and read the writing, you will find that they make about 100 mistakes per hour. I sometimes wonder whether a bias enters into the mistakes. With all of our technology, you would like to think that we could do better.

  10. ATN · 822 days ago

    I wonder why someone having agreed to the Window EULA would be autorised to enter the court with his PC and turn it ON... After all, the content of the hard drive at any point in time can be edited/removed by Windows or any other program installed (like anti-virus), voluntary or not; the wireless network, camera and microphone can be turn on or off at any time (even while telling the user they are off), and the user has agreed to it.

  11. Luis Rojas Jr. · 603 days ago

    I wish him the best of luck... god bless got him self a second chance now.

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About the author

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, and veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.