back to article Man convicted of murder gets retrial after virus eats transcripts

A US man who had been convicted on a second-degree murder charge will get a new trial after a computer virus destroyed transcripts of court proceedings. Randy Chaviano, of Hialeah, Florida, was given a life sentence for the fatal shooting of Carlos Acosta after he was convicted by a Miami jury in July 2009. An appeal was lodged …

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Facepalm

New excuse for kids: the virus ate my homework!

So they did not back up properly, and they did not have adequate anti-virus protection. Methinks Ms Cowart is not the only one who might be fired.

Monumental cock-up indeed.

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So the rules are that both the hardcopy and electronic copy are generated, which she ignored rather than admit to not having enough paper rolls and (presumably) forcing a recess while more were obtained.

She also chose to delete the transcript from the steno machine before she'd lodged it in archive or taking a second copy, rather than coming back and doing so afterwards, ensuring that the only copy was on her own PC.

Conclusion: *She* did not back up properly, there's no "they" involved here. The anti-virus fuckup (if there was one - we could be in zero-day land here) is immaterial as disk failure, dropping the machine or a whole slew of other possibilities could have easily produced the same results.

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Anonymous Coward

Lodged transcript in archive?

@TeeCee: She also chose to delete the transcript from the steno machine before she'd lodged it in archive or taking a second copy ..

Why didn't they just buy her more digital cartridges?

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Windows

stenographer becomes a steganographist...

Why, oh why do courrts in US still rely on this archaic system?

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Anonymous Coward

Given that the stenographers have to be able transcribe at >200 words per minute what system would you recommend?

Voice recognition can't handle it and pen and paper is to dependant upon being able to read the writers hand writing.

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Boffin

@Andus McCoatover

Why do they rely on that archaic system? Because even if the electronic records get screwed up, there's still a hard copy back up, that's why!

Or did you not RTFA?

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Why, oh why do courrts in US still rely on this archaic system?

Because it guarantees a hardcopy transcript. At least, it does when the stenographer isn't an idiot.

Show me any system involving humans that's immune to idiocy - I dare you.

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Re: what system would you recommend?

As Nixon would say, what is wrong with audio recording?

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Windows

"As Nixon would say, what is wrong with audio recording?"

Nothing at all. I used to work for Nicolet Scientific. I guess I should know....

(Behind every Milhous lies a Watergate...)

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Windows

It's not stenography that's archaic

Have you seen court records, published even recently?

They seem to rely on publishing a (badly) scanned PDF of typewritten papers, even though typewriters aren't made anymore. Does Microsoft have a special font for that?

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/26/r_i_p_mechanical_typewriter/

As far as "Voice recognition can't handle it and pen and paper is to [sic] dependant upon being able to read the writers hand writing"

..consider transcribing from multipe copies. We all take backups, don't we?? Or did the stenographers' copy burn in the fire-safe as well???

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Windows

OK, for the ungifted, the halt and the lame...

Richard Nixon's full name was (OK, until 'tricky-dicky' became fashionable)

"Richard Millhous Nixon"

I should've written "Behind every Watergate, the lies (geddit?) a Millhous(e).

I hate having to explain things like this to the folks who threw the native americans out, but I'm nice like that.

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Joke

@ Andus

We already knew that man shares 99.4% of their most important DNA regions with chimps. But you're not one to be impressed by /in silico/ studies, you had to go all the way and prove it. Now THAT's dedication!

Burn, burn!*

*That line and icon for Tuthatl. Hey Tuthatl, tell yo momma I said Hi.

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Anonymous Coward

Relying on paper backups?

If this is data controlled by the court or district then should it not be up to them to have processes in place to backup the computer based data.

I work in IT, and if I accidentally erased important or expensive data I wouldn't be fired, however the person in charge of backing up the data had better have done their job.

OK, he didn't follow procedure, he should be reprimanded, but shouldn't the person who wrote the procedure face the same heat.

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I dont know...

A retrial is likely to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, as its likely the state will have to pay for it, including including prosecution, defence lawyers, witness expenses, Having to dig up the old evidence and re-evaluate it to make sure its still accurate, witnesses are going to have to be located, including any that have moved, Its going to be a huge raft of inconvenience for a lot of people.

I would imagine if you had done some incompetance to have cost so much money and cause so much inconvenience for so many people, you probably would be fired. Certainly i would.

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Anonymous Coward

Just goes to show...

... that desktop computers, while they can do a lot, aren't good for everything. Sometimes you really do want something that's at least as robust as paper. An appliance that is little more than a glorified typewriter, perhaps with fancy automated backups to some court proceedings logging server or something, but definitely without the risk of viruses and malware and plain old spontaneous software failure associated with certain widely used kinds of desktop emulation software, is exactly what's called for.

Can't really blame the clerk who wasn't told of these dangers (though they should be reasonably well-known by now; following all the implications still is specialist work), but all the myriad possibilities of failure certainly need to be dealt with in settings like this one. Legal procedures are finnicky for reasons good and bad alike, but it does seem that the procedures haven't quite come to terms with modern technology yet.

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FAIL

Can't really blame the clerk...

I don't see anywhere in this article or the two linked ones any statement that the clerk wasn't told of the dangers. However I did note in the newspaper article that she made a habit of not bringing enough paper rolls with her to work. She transferred the files from her stenography machine to her PC then erased the disk of the former. Sounds generally slap-dash and incompetent to me. Definite FAIL

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Anonymous Coward

There is a difference...

... between clerk and IT professional. Someone with sufficient IT experience knows to be slightly paranoid and always have at least two copies on different media in different locations on hand, just in case. This appears to've been policy (paper and digital) here but seems somehow not have been conveyed as important.

Oh, and to be perfectly pedantic I should have s/clerk who wasn't told of/clerk if she wasn't told of/, as I was talking more abstractly than not, but anyway. There's a legitimate question here of whether her superiors knew she did (habitually? didn't spot that) fail to bring enough paper rolls, understood the implications, and whether they'd admonished her for that. That is one of the things superiors are for, too.

The point is that the reasons for our paranoia are well-founded in our detailed knowledge of our systems. "Mere users" usually don't have that and the shiny front-ends tend to instill trust that might turn out to be unfounded, as it did here. There is definitely enough FAIL to go 'round, but I'm not sure it's fair to dump it all on just the one obtuse clerk. IT is supposed to make people's lives easier, not make them more paranoid. That it makes us so is perhaps more of a reflection on the poor state of our Shiny! technology. But since she wasn't an IT pro, after all, I do lean toward not blaming her for all of the FAIL here.

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Not bringing enough paper rolls?

John Arthur: "I did note in the newspaper article that she made a habit of not bringing enough paper rolls with her to work"

And we can believe this because an officer of the Court would never knowingly tell a lie. Who's idea was it to put the stenographer in charge of the only known record. What was supposed to happen if the defence requested a transcript of the previous days proceeds?

@Leyden: "The PC subsequently became infected by an unidentified virus"

What was the name of this unidentified Operating System that this unidentified virus ran on?

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Anonymous Coward

@Microphage

"What was the name of this unidentified Operating System that this unidentified virus ran on?"

Please don't try to turn this into one of your anti-MS diatribes. This is a procedural failure, one way or the other. Your question is pointless, apart from a desire to turn everything into a dig at MS. Childish. I wouldn't be surprised if you blame MS when your toast burns.

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FAIL

@AC 20120105 12:32

There was a fire here in the justice building in Brussels, looks like many paper files were lost for good.

So much for your robust paper, eh? Electronic records can be backed up easily...

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Anonymous Coward

@Petur

Yes, fire can destroy paper, and computers, however a proper fire suppression system should be around to stop exactly that sort of problem. I speak as someone who has lost tapes and paper in an offsite vault because it burned down - the fire suppression system had been turned off for routine maintenance and no-one had turned it back on again.

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Anonymous Coward

Just how easily then, eh?

Sure, paper doesn't survive fire. Or water damage. Or shredding. Or paper-eating vermin. Or time, given shitty ink and/or shitty paper. But most of those also apply to digital storage, with bit-rot and viruses and obsolete software and a host of other things thrown into the mix. We know how to care for paper over the short and the long term. Electronic document storage, not so much. Feh, we haven't even really sorted digital document formats, waging standards institutes-breaking wars over them instead.

Which indeed makes paper more robust, more obvious to handlers, and also more familiar to clerks in the justice system. You have it in your hand, you can read it. Electronic storage, again, not so much. Any more weak arguments to counter, or maybe you could try a stronger one next time?

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If those papers had been in a safe?

And if a stack of CD's were put in place of those papers?

Same results with the "opposite" media. Or put differently; comparing apples & oranges IMO.

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And so can paper

With important stuff, double or even triple redundancy should be the minimum requirement.

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Salient details:

This is part of a comment that was posted to the Sophos blog:

"I am a court reporter in Virginia....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."

And this paragraph was in the Herald Article:

"Court reporters in criminal court have also complained that plunging rates paid by the state have driven away experienced stenographers and forced firms to hang on to aging equipment."

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Anonymous Coward

Moneyz

Just goes to show, you get what you pay for.

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Joke

If you want data durability

Carve it into stone slabs, impervious to fire, water and bit rot.

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Go

Fast, reliable, cheap.

Pick *one*.

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Bronze badge

Depends on your stone...

Have you tried reading the inscriptions on the stones in a graveyard? Visit Arnos Vale for a quick lesson in the fleeting immortality conferred by inscribed stone.

If you're going to pick something for this purpose, I recommend Delabole slate.

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On the other hand...

stone slabs are quite vulnerable to earthquakes.

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Seems some rules weren't enforced here.

I mean, from what I read in the article this woman had build up a reputation of not bringing enough material (paper rolls) with her to work. Which makes me wonder; how long does such a company allow such disrespect for the rules?

Surely there are some strict rules regarding how all this information is supposed to be stored? I mean; sometimes we're talking about highly sensitive data (at least where privacy is concerned; for example a statement by an anonymous witness). Next is the already mentioned aspect of backups. Having the information on 2 media carriers means that one can serve as a backup for the other.

One can only wonder why no one has taken action earlier on...

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unbelievable

"Cowart has been FIRED for the monumental screw-up"

Must have been a temp / non-union / outsourced job.

There is no way anyone in law enforcement is ever fired for a screw up, or occasionally killing somebody. Or for launching a nation wide missing person hunt for an african-american, non-spanish speaking teenage girl. And discovering that they had accidentally deported her to Columbia instead!

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Holmes

Forget the data fragility aspect for a minute...

Isn't guilty still guilty even if "...An appeal was lodged when it was discovered that only a partial record of the trial that led to Chaviano's conviction could be found..." . Different if they had OTHER grounds to appeal on, or am I missing something?

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Without the full transcript, the appelate court cannot rule on the fairness (or lack thereof) of teh original trial. Without that record, any appeal is a game of judicial 'spin the bottle.' The most fair, shortest route forward is a do-over. Not to say that it's *absolutely* fair, or just, but nothing involving humans ever is - this is just the least bad of a number of bad choices.

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Re: The most fair, shortest route

The best choice would probably be to free him, actually. Where are they going to find a whole court and jury honestly unprejudiced? If rules were to be followed it would be trivial for the defence to have the judge, jurors etc thrown out indefinitely until there is noone left. I'm guessing "they" won't let that happen, so the retrial is deemed to be farcical at best. Of course they cannot let him go, for political reasons, so the farce it is then. But fairness or justice have nothing to do with that: it's just an arse-covering exercise.

Seriously, a cock-up of such magnitude should have repercutions very high up. The stenographer was stupid, but the whole chain of command is at fault here. There should have been some form of control; at the very least a tracking of the proceedings. All versions of them.

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Exactly what I was going to say, Pierre.

There isn't going to be a fair trial. After all, he has already been found guilty once, so the underlying thought in the minds of the jurors is "He's guilty". Then, when he is found guilty again, any chance of an appeal is gone, since he has been found guilty twice!

In a country governed by the Rule of Law, this man would have to be freed and his record regarding this offence cleared. However it is in the USA*, and the Rule of Law has about as much weight as the rules of handball when it gets to the courtroom.

*I'm not saying that it is only the USA that has this problem (a very high-profile verdict here in the UK this week proves that only too well).

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Childcatcher

@ Intractable Potsherd

Not only should he be freed, he should be given an important post, to wit, Lord High Executioner for the Third District.

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Anonymous Coward

re: There isn't going to be a fair trial

Doesn't matter - he can appeal, and this time the appellate judge will be able to scrutinise the proceedings.

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@ AC "he can appeal"

He certainly can appeal.

"he appellate judge will be able to scrutinise the proceedings."

And break the guilty verdict because the court was demonstrably prejudiced. So why wasting millions? Because chances are the appelate judge will not break the decision on that base, as he should.

No matter how you take it it's going to be a farce from start to finish. Only that way it can be a very long and extremely expensive farce. But hey, at least the local political opposition can't campaign on the theme "the previous administration's incompetence let convicted murderers free". Which is, in my opinion, the only reason why there will be a retrial (IIRC, judges and the like are elected round these parts). Arse-covering exercise, as I said, so that the bucket stops with the firing of the scapegoat and noone in a high position feels the heat.

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Childcatcher

Courtrooms should be just like 7-Elevens...

Three video cameras behind the bench, recording the entire audio proceedings in the court room. Used for both broadcasting and for a back-up record of the trial.

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FAIL

Given that there is an IT angle to this story,

and the Reg is an IT publication, why was such information as the OS used on the hapless stenographer's machine and the anti-virus programme - if any - installed omitted from the article ? Or is the answer, at least to the first query, so obvious as not to require comment ?...

Henri

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Your IT angle...

Well according to Fox News the state guidelines do state that every piece of electronics should run Symantec, as they won the procurement bid, only that DEMOCRAT stenographer DELIBERATELYchoosed to IGNORE THE RULES; a local source suggests that the stenograph only has 64 Mo of RAM -because that should be enough for everyone- so obviously it was 3.567 Go short of the memory required to run Symantec's slimmest anti-malware.

The OS on the stenograph's personal machine is not really important because the data should never have been there in the first place; and certainly not the *only* set. However, I read somewhere that the laptop was running OpenBSD, and that Theo de Raadt had committed seppuku over the incident.

Rather unfortunately, it was later denied. Did you know that florists don't do refunds?

Also, stenographers are currently fighting to not be replaced by audio recording in that state; draw your own conclusions.

If that's not enough IT angle for your taste, I do have more angle for you. Between these fingers, see? That's called the Kling-on salute. A bit like the Vulcan salute, but with hornier fingers*.

Higgs and cuss

--

Pierre

*Oh, how I love English and it's marvellous double-entendre potential. Wait, in that case make it triple. Or more.

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