Silverthorne sexual assault case thrown out during trial due to lost evidence
A judge threw out a felony sexual assault case against a Silverthorne man on the first day of his trial Monday after it was revealed that police had lost evidence, a remarkable conclusion to a case that deeply frustrated prosecutors and police.
The revelation that a former Silverthorne police officer lost audio recordings of interviews came midway through jury selection, a highly unusual time for a case to be derailed. An appeal is possible but unlikely.
“I think that there are less stringent remedies that could’ve been taken, including a continuance, but I understand the court’s ruling,” said prosecutor Lisa Hunt, reached by phone Tuesday. “It’s frustrating because I think that ultimately the victim is the one that is harmed.”
Juan Hernandez-Ramero, 53, was charged with class-three felony sexual assault after police accused him of raping a woman while she was staying in his Silverthorne home. He maintains his innocence, one of his attorneys said.
“He said that they consented to sexual intercourse and she says absolutely not — that he forced her, holding her down by her arms and with his body weight, to have sex on the couch at his residence,” Hunt said.
An arrest affidavit outlining the police version of events couldn’t be obtained Tuesday because Judge Karen Romeo sealed the case after dismissing it.
Police recorded more than a dozen interviews while investigating the case, but at least two were apparently lost. In one of them, Hernandez professes his innocence to police, public defender Thea Reiff said.
“If law enforcement destroys exculpatory evidence or evidence of innocence, the sanction for that under the case law should be dismissal,” Reiff said on Tuesday. “He was claiming his innocence in that interview, which makes it exculpatory evidence.”
Judge Romeo’s order on the dismissal is unavailable because of the seal, but Hunt said Romeo found that the lost evidence would have effectively forced Hernandez to testify.
“The defense articulated that they felt (the recording) had exculpatory information regarding their client,” Hunt said. “I don’t think we can necessarily say that since we don’t have the interview to look at. We don’t know what we don’t know.”
A former officer who investigated the case referenced the recordings in one of his reports, but they were nowhere to be found among nearly 20 audio and video files submitted to the court.
“It’s completely disappointing in all regards,” Silverthorne police chief John Minor said. “That officer failed his victim. But we still disagree with the court’s decision and are disappointed by it.”
Minor was not police chief at the time of the lapse but said he still takes full responsibility and does “not tolerate failure to follow protocol.” The officer has since left the police department, but Minor declined to say why.
Minor defended his police department’s evidence-handling practices, saying his staff conducts routine spot checks and annual audits of the evidence room. If the recording weren’t in his evidence room, he said, the officer failed to follow procedure.
“If he recorded this interview, and we have no reason to doubt that he did not, he did not book it into evidence,” Minor said. “If it was put in our evidence room, it would still be there — period, end of story.”
It’s unclear how the mistake was missed until the first day of trial, after scores of people had been summoned to the Summit County Justice Center in Breckenridge for jury selection.
Attorneys said that all of the interviews were in Spanish, which may have contributed to the confusion. Hunt said there were also some technical difficulties playing the audio recordings because they were produced on an old system. (Hernandez’s accuser first went to police in late 2015).
Hunt said she believes the case could have been rescheduled and the former officer summoned to testify. Reiff, however, argued that the penalty for destroying potentially exculpatory evidence must be severe.
“I certainly agree that we need to protect defendants’ rights but also in Colorado we are lucky to have a constitutional amendment supporting victims’ rights and those should be addressed too — so I feel badly for the victim,” Hunt said.
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