At least 13 Dallas homicide cases could be in danger of being thrown out after revelations that video evidence was permanently deleted in potentially hundreds of murder investigations dating back to 2016, The Dallas Morning News has learned.
Dallas police identified some deleted videos during their ongoing review of about 450 pending murder and capital murder cases. And this is just the beginning.
A review of all pending violent crime cases, including robberies and aggravated assaults will be next, said Dallas police Executive Assistant Chief Albert Martinez. Police and prosecutors will decide whether to review violent crime cases that have already ended in convictions, Martinez added.
Only cases filed with prosecutors are under review. Since 2018, when the department switched to a new crime reporting system, Dallas has had about 1,053 murders — although arrests were not made in all of them.
Adding in other violent crimes, thousands more cases must be reviewed. While it is unclear how many of these cases involve missing video evidence, it is certainly possible that hundreds of people could get their day in court delayed. Those accused of crimes could see their charges reduced or dismissed, and families of victims could be left without closure or justice.
“The horrors that can occur here are just catastrophic,” said Douglas Huff, president of the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
The discovery of the police department’s evidence collection problems comes on the heels of a high-profile murder trial that was delayed in January after a detective failed to turn over hundreds of videos to prosecutors, as required by state law.
A Dallas judge is deciding whether to dismiss a case against Nina Marano, who along with two others, is accused of killing a Seattle woman who was visiting Dallas in 2020. Judge Amber Givens is expected to rule on March 27 whether the trial will proceed.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said in a written statement that he asked Dallas police to review all homicide cases filed with his office, prioritizing those with upcoming trials, after issues were revealed in the Marano case and after The News brought to light other police storage problems last month.
Creuzot said his office was notified Feb. 25 that police have found 13 pending homicide cases so far with deleted evidence. Police also found additional evidence that hadn’t been turned over to prosecutors in two other homicides cases, he added. Five homicide cases had complete evidence, he said. His office did not immediately respond to a request for details about the cases.
The review process is ongoing, and prosecutors are alerting defense attorneys as they hear from police, Creuzot said. His office has not been notified of any cases already decided in court that have missing evidence, he noted.
“As one could expect, in an office that receives more than 56,000 cases a year, this will put a tremendous strain on our resources and will distract us from the cases that we have from all other Dallas County law enforcement agencies,” Creuzot said. “But, working with Dallas police, we are going to do our best to get this resolved.”
Dallas police Chief Eddie García said he and his department are committed, along with support the police receive from city officials, to fix “these types of blind spots” as they are discovered.
”No organization is perfect,” the chief said in a text, noting that the department will continue conducting internal checks to be as efficient as possible. He added, “A professional organization finds and recognizes its faults and then puts measures in place to correct those faults.”
Martinez told The News that police launched a review into the murder cases after Marano’s trial was delayed. Police have reviewed fewer than 100 of the 450 cases so far, he said.
Martinez said he’s certain that some cases already decided in court are also impacted. As a result, a number of these criminal cases could lead to further review by the courts or to requests by defense attorneys to overturn convictions.
Most cases that were found to be impacted in police’s initial review occurred before 2021, and all are still awaiting trial, Martinez said.
The News first reported on some of these issues last month when it learned that thousands of digital files were improperly stored by officers dating back to 2016.
The files, which are mainly videos, were uploaded by officers to the department’s data storage platform but weren’t labeled properly, which meant they are not attached to cases. The files are not deleted if untagged, but they can become difficult to find, police have said.
The January trial that was delayed was the first public indication of these evidence collection problems.
“In most cases, video does exist of the scene or of the arrest,” said Martinez, who is overseeing the review. “But we are acknowledging that some of the videos of that scene or arrest were not captured into the case before the retention period expired.”
Videos are retained for different lengths of time depending on how they’re labeled by officers, police have said. For example, the retention period for videos labeled “calls for service” was set for only 90 days because the department assumed that was enough time for detectives to pull the files into their cases, which permanently saves them, Martinez said. As a result of the storage issues The News brought to light, DPD expanded the retention period to one year.
“It’s gone, which is unfortunate,” Martinez said about the video evidence. “But that’s why the process is important, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re working on fixing this, fixing our processes.”
As part of their review, police are starting to notify prosecutors as they discover cases impacted by missing videos.
Some videos were deleted due to human error, such as detectives not saving them quickly enough in case files or because of officers improperly categorizing the videos, Martinez said. Others may have been deleted because of deficiencies in DPD’s processes, he said.
In the slaying of Marisela Botello Valadez, the Seattle woman, Dallas police Detective Christine Ramirez failed to properly save video evidence.
Police disclosed during a three-day hearing last month that 18 videos or photos were deleted and hundreds more were not shared with lawyers because of Ramirez’s failure. Creuzot previously said his office is working with Dallas police to audit all files belonging to Ramirez since the start of her investigative work with the department.
Defense lawyer Valerie Baston, who represents Marano, said she was surprised to learn video evidence for other cases had been deleted. She suspected some of Ramirez’s other cases might have lost evidence but not that it would be a problem throughout the department.
Baston, who was a prosecutor for 18 years in Tarrant County, said she is disappointed that police are still failing to turn over evidence to lawyers. She was prosecuting crimes when Dallas County led the nation in DNA exonerations under former District Attorney Craig Watkins.
During those years, the courts hosted exoneration proceedings where men walked free after losing years of their lives to prison for murders they didn’t commit. Evidence was not given to lawyers ahead of trial in some of those wrongful convictions.
“I thought that with the technology that we have and the resources available that there would be better police work, better tracking done, turning things over,” Baston said.
The law requiring police to verify that they gave all materials in a case at the time they file it with prosecutors is named for one of Dallas’ exonerees, Richard Miles. Miles spent 15 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction. He was exonerated in 2012 after evidence in Dallas police possession identifying another suspect was discovered.
Police are hurting their own cases in the courtroom when they lose evidence or fail to turn it over to lawyers, Baston said.
“And they’re hurting the families of the victims because something happened to their loved one,” Baston said.
The Richard Miles Act must be strengthened to better ensure police compliance, Baston said.
But Cheryl Wattley, a professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law who represented Miles in his appeal, said the current system should suffice.
A judge assesses whether the violation jeopardizes a person’s rights to a fair trial and decides whether to dismiss the case. The possibility of a judge dismissing a serious case should be enough incentive for police to comply, Wattley said.
“Our whole criminal justice process rests upon the integrity of each component doing their job faithfully and well,” Wattley said. “And if that isn’t adequate motivation, then the fact that perhaps there are going to be consequences that cause cases to be dismissed should be incentive.”
But that requires judges or district attorneys — who are elected — to have the political willpower to dismiss cases that are unfair to the accused, lawyers said.
“Throwing out a case is going to be incredibly difficult for anybody,” said Huff, the defense lawyer association president.
But imagine being a victim’s family member who thought justice had been served only to find out years later that the wrong person was imprisoned, Huff said. Or imagine video evidence is lost in your case that tells a wildly different story than the police report, Huff added.
“This isn’t fighting over a property line or somebody owes somebody some money over a contract,” Huff said. “We’re talking about putting human beings in cages.”
Deputy City Manager Jon Fortune sent a memo to the City Council’s public safety committee Friday about the video evidence. He also updated the committee on the thousands of unlabeled files in the memo.
An internal audit in November found police did not categorize 89,000 videos — 72,000 from patrol and 17,000 from other groups, Fortune wrote in the memo. He said that’s 2% of the 3.8 million videos dating back to 2016 that are stored on the police server.
About 18,000 remained uncategorized as of Friday, Fortune said.
If videos aren’t categorized, they remain on the server but become difficult to find. Police have said the records were mostly videos — such as officers’ body cameras, vehicle camera recordings and footage from interview rooms.
About 5,000 videos are created by Dallas police officers daily, he said.
Martinez said the department realistically hopes to get the number of untagged videos down to about 10,000.
The council’s public safety committee devoted less than four minutes to discussing the uncategorized files and deleted videos during the meeting.
Cara Mendelsohn, vice chair of the committee, said the recent issues were not the same as the massive deletion of police files in 2021. In August of that year, lawyers were alarmed to learn a city information technology employee lost millions of police files, including videos and audio recordings, when he improperly moved evidence between systems. That employee was fired.
“For everybody who said, ‘Oh, here we go again,’ — this is a completely different thing, and the data wasn’t lost,” Mendelsohn said. “We would like 100% perfection from all people all times. But I think, Chief García, you’ve said to me like, ‘Look, it’s less than 2%.’”
No other committee members asked questions during the meeting about DPD’s evidence.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said in a written statement Wednesday that it’s critical that police apprehend violent criminals and deliver justice for victims’ families through the legal system.
“These reports of potential missing evidence are concerning,” Johnson said. “However, because we have not yet been briefed on the review of cases, which is still ongoing, it would be premature to comment further at this time.”
Law enforcement agencies nationwide increased their use of body cameras over the years to promote transparency and protect officers since the footage can often clear police of wrongdoing.
But with a massive amount of files needing to be audited and tracked, Dallas police have encountered new challenges and possible breakdowns in system oversight and maintenance.
In the memo to City Council members, Fortune outlined several changes police made to better store evidence. Martinez said some are in the works, while others have been implemented.
Dallas police have extended the length of time officers’ videos stay on the data storage platform, Axon’s evidence.com. Now, all categorized videos will remain saved for at least one year, instead of the state law minimum of 90 days, Martinez said. Meanwhile, DPD officials are considering tweaking the department’s minimum to two years, he said.
Police added more staff to the digital media evidence team, which had nine sworn officers, Martinez said. Three other officers will join the team in the coming weeks, and DPD plans to make it a hybrid unit with non-sworn employees as well, he said.
Every patrol division will soon have a sergeant whose sole role is ensuring compliance with department policy such as video tagging, training, use-of-force reports and reports that are returned to officers for corrections, he said. Investigative units will be served by a work compliance team of three to five officers and a supervisor, he said.
“The principal idea behind that is not only are we working on complying with our policies and procedures, we expect that it’s going to also free up the other sergeants to be in the field and help the officers out there,” Martinez said.
The process also has checks and balances. Martinez said a detective, supervisor, the digital media evidence team and district attorney’s office all look for related video evidence with the current processes in place.
“We’re much more confident that we’re capturing — that we’re finding and submitting all video evidence generated,” Martinez said.
Staff writer Everton Bailey Jr. contributed to this report.