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Restored DVD key to conviction in rape case

Video testimony on the disk was unreadable; Seagate restored it

December 11, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The recovery of data from a damaged DVD helped convict a California man of multiple rapes earlier this year.

Michael Barnes, a 41-year-old convicted kidnapper, had been charged in a Santa Cruz, Calif., court with raping a woman while he was out on parole. In fact, three women -- not just one -- had accused Barnes of rape. But one of the victims' original police interviews was on a DVD that had become unreadable in the time between the interview and the trial, according to the Santa Cruz, Calif., District Attorney's Office.

After the judge in the trial ruled that the victim whose testimony was on the disk could not testify during the trial, prosecutors did not have enough evidence to build a case for multiple counts of rape against Barnes. The victim was not allowed to testify because of disputes over her original testimony, according to Santa Cruz District Attorney Andrew Isaac.

He said police recalled her statements -- the ones on the corrupted DVD -- as being different from what the victim planned to say during the trial, Isaac said. As a result, Barnes' lawyers claimed that the victim's original police interview, as police remembered it, would have been inconsistent with her trial testimony and therefore would be exculpatory evidence. "The loss of exculpatory evidence is a bad thing and the judge was inclined to punish us by not letting the witness testify because of the allegation that we'd lost the evidence," he said.

That made recovering the DVD data even more important. Two local data recovery firms had already said the videotaped interview on the DVD was unrecoverable. But by chance, Isaac's parents had a neighbor who was a retired Seagate employee. Having heard of Seagate, Isaac decided to contact the company about a medium they didn't even manufacture, hoping they could recover the data.

Seagate's i365 subsidiary has a data recovery service -- Seagate Recovery Services (SRS) -- that took on the job of trying to bring the November 2006 police interview back to life. SRS loaded the DVD into a player, but "there was nothing on the DVD.

"Our analysis showed there to be damage to the lead-in section of the data," Keith Gnagey, vice president of professional services for i365, said in an e-mail statement about the recovery effort. That meant any attempt "with normal playing software would not be able to get past the beginning of the data." But once SRS extracted an image of the data from the DVD, it was able to repair the damaged lead-in portion of the DVD, making the data -- which had always been intact -- viewable.

Once the DVD was restored, prosecutors had the evidence they needed to charge Barnes with multiple rapes involving three different women. Barnes was sentenced to 24 years in prison on Dec. 5.

"This combination was too much for the defense," Isaac said. "Mr. Barnes plead guilty, not 'no contest,' to raping all three women, waived his appeals and accepted a 24-year prison term -- a result wholeheartedly endorsed by all three survivors," Isaac said.

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