Emails Reveal Prosecutors and Police Struggled With Technology and Schedules as Now-Exonerated Man Sat in Jail
A series of emails exchanged between the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office and the East Lansing Police Department – recently obtained by ELi through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – show much more about the December 2020 case in which charges of sexual assault and kidnapping were suddenly dropped following an extraordinary press release.
ELi broke the story that the dropped-charges case led to an East Lansing City Council member lodging multiple complaints against the police, including complaints about the truthfulness of one officer’s report, possible bias in the press release, and more.
Among ELi’s new findings: Before dropping all the charges, prosecutors were looking into also charging the accused man’s brother with witness intimidation. This followed the woman involved contacting the man’s brother to say she was trying to get the charges against the man dropped.
The emails also show that a nearly month-long delay between the once-alleged crimes and prosecutors’ review of the exonerating recordings stemmed from failures of technology, human lapses in scheduling, and days spent executing a search warrant.
While the police and prosecutors’ offices traded emails troubleshooting their audio/video tech struggles, the man exonerated by eventual review of the evidence spent about two weeks in jail without bond. The man, identified by his lawyer as an American man of Arabic descent, faced charges that could have put him in prison for life.
Those charges were dropped after Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Sarah Pulda, working in Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon’s office, finally got to review police body cam footage and a recording from the accused man’s phone sometime in late January, about six weeks after the incident at the center of the case.
As ELi reported, this case ultimately led to an internal ELPD investigation into the truthfulness of ELPD Sgt. Jeff Thomas’ report on the incident. Thomas’ claims about alleged crimes did not match reports of the other officers present, and after charges were dropped, Council member Lisa Babcock looked into what happened and made a complaint about Thomas.
Babcock also complained about what she saw as a biased media release. Her complaints were at least partially “sustained,” meaning police investigators found some of her concerns to be substantiated.
Wanting to understand how this case went from an extraordinary press release about violent crime to the eventual dropping of all charges and a sustained complaint against a police officer, ELi pursued materials from the prosecutor’s office via FOIA.
That approach has now turned up a series of emails — mostly between Assistant Prosecutor Pulda and ELPD Detective Traci Sperry — showing what caused the hold-up in Pulda getting to review the recordings: a litany of tech challenges and human lapses in scheduling.
The newly obtained emails also show Pulda sought a search warrant to “show intimidation” by the brother of the man accused. This happened after the woman who was understood by police and prosecutors as the victim told ELPD that she herself had initiated the conversation with the accused man’s brother.
The woman had shared screenshots of the Facebook Messenger conversation she had with the brother, showing that she initiated the conversation. In that conversation, she specified that she was trying to get prosecutors not to press charges.
The emails show those screenshots were sent to ELPD Det. Sperry on Dec. 17, 2020. The emails also show that the next day, Pulda wrote to Sperry: “Victim has been contacted by defendant’s brother via facebook and she is no longer participating – are you able to get a SW [search warrant] on either her FB or his so we can show intimidation?”
“I will work on that,” Sperry replied. “She did call me and sent me emails along with screenshots of her conversation with him. I have also been listening to jail recordings but some of the conversations are in Arabic. I am working on getting them translated. I just completed a supplemental report which is coming your way soon. She denies anyone intimidating her, paying her so forth. She said she reached out to him.”
Assistant Prosecutor Pulda’s original request for recordings was just for footage from police body cameras – and that took a while to be transmitted, as the accused sat in jail.
Pulda first asked ELPD Det. Sperry for the body camera footage on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, six days after the arrest.
Sperry replied to Pulda’s query on the ensuing Monday, Dec. 21. She wrote that she would get the body camera videos “assigned” to Pulda on evidence.com — a service run by AXON, which provides technology including body-worn cameras for both police and the military. Uploading them to that site would make the recordings available for Pulda to watch, at least in theory.
The following morning (Tuesday, Dec. 22), Christopher Wickman, an attorney with the Nichols Firm who represented the accused in this case, emailed the prosecutor’s office asking for both the body camera footage and the recordings from his client’s phone. He believed the material would exonerate his client, and said his client had also told police about the recording after the arrest.
That led to a chain of communications in which the offices of the prosecutor and police tried to get on the same page with regard to everybody having access not only to the body-cam video, but the recordings on the accused man’s phone. It appears that, until then, the prosecutor may not have even known about the phone recordings.
When Assistant Prosecutor Pulda asked about the phone recording, Det. Sperry answered that she had gotten a search warrant for the phone and the recordings were “being extracted” by MSUPD for ELPD.
Additionally, Sperry said she had watched and listened to portions of the audio/video, but not all of the recording – which she indicated was longer than two hours but contained less than half a minute of watchable video.
“There appears to be a few more videos as well that might be related on phone,” Sperry wrote. “I will keep you posted.”
More delays occurred while the man still sat in jail.
The phone recording didn’t come up again for another week, when Sperry included a note about it in an email to Pulda on Tuesday, Dec. 29.
“Also you might want to know that [ELPD Lieutenant Scott] Sexton called me today because I am not physically at work until tomorrow but he wanted me to know that he picked up the phone from MSUPD today and said the report that was done by Sgt. James Terrell revealed a little different information after he reviewed the recordings,” Sperry wrote.
The ELPD detective added, “I have not seen them yet but plan to be at work tomorrow by 5:30 am and I will watch the videos and keep you informed.”
The next day (Wednesday, Dec. 30), the accused was out of jail after being granted a personal recognizance bond by prosecutor’s, according to Wickman. The lone entry on the court docket for Jan. 11, 2021, reads “$25,000 PR BOND POSTED ON 12/30/20 RECD.”
As Pulda repeatedly asked for the recording, tech issues and misaligned work schedules continually delayed them being conveyed from ELPD to the prosecutor’s office.
It wasn’t until after the New Year that the recordings came up again. On the morning of Monday, Jan. 4, ELPD Det. Sperry emailed prosecuting attorney Pulda, saying the audio/video recording had been uploaded, along with some other, shorter recordings from the phone.
Still, Sperry warned Pulda that “you have to have a special file on your computer” to view the video, and offered for Pulda to see it at a different location if need be.
Back and forth they went, trying to figure out the tech problem, with more and more people getting involved in trying to solve the tech issues. Released emails show this went on from Jan. 4 through around Jan. 15, a date Sperry and Pulda agreed to meet in person for the review of recordings.
Exactly when and how Pulda finally reviewed the recordings isn’t clear, but following that review, Pulda soon made the decision to move to dismiss charges in the case.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, Pulda sent Sperry the following message: “I wanted to send you a quick email that based upon the evidence reviewed from the defendant’s cell phone, we are dismissing the charges against him. You will not need to appear at the court tomorrow as the case is now dismissed.”
All charges were dropped. The man’s brother was not charged with witness intimidation.
But the cost to the family has not been insignificant.
“He was held in jail for a few weeks during a pandemic, his name was plastered all over the internet as a rapist which affected him and his family,” Wickman said, “and [it all] ended up in harassment including on social media, and ended up with his apartment complex starting to evict him before I was able to explain what happened and the charges were dismissed. This is on top of substantial legal fees paid to investigate the charges and prepare for preliminary examination – one of the most important steps in the criminal process.”
Wickman added, “There is nothing that can be done to undo that.”
Council member Babcock tells ELi that she obtained the same set of emails via FOIA and “found them deeply disturbing and have made several requests to City Manager George Lahanas to have the Police Department investigate this. I have not received a response.”
For those who have experienced sexual assault or relationship violence, these resources are available in our community.