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Supreme Court overturns part of Pierce County case against convicted child rapist, pornographer

Post by Stacey Mulick / The News Tribune on June 17, 2010 at 9:16 am |
June 17, 2010 9:37 am

The state Supreme Court has overturned 20 counts against a Tacoma man convicted in 2004 of dozens of child rape and child pornography crimes.

In 2004, Neil Grenning was convicted of 72 counts and sentenced to 117 years in prison after a jury convicted him of raping, molesting, exploiting and assaulting two boys in 2001 and 2002. Prosecutors alleged Grenning had taken photos of himself sexually assaulting the boys.

Grenning appealed his conviction. The state Court of Appeals largely upheld the conviction but overturned his conviction on 20 counts of possession of child pornography.

The state Supreme Court reviewed the cause. They found the 20 counts should be overturned and remanded back to Pierce County Superior Court.

The issue for the justices was defense attorney’s access to Grenning’s computer hard drive, where the pornographic pictures were found.

Before the trial, Grenning’s attorney asked for mirror-image copies of the hard drive so that defense experts could review the evident. The trial court judge grant limited access, according to the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling issued today.

Grenning’s defense team was allowed accessing to copies of the hard drives only in the County-City Building, on government operating systems and during limited hours.

“Under these limitations, Grenning was unable to obtain an expert willing to examine the hard drives,” the Supreme Court opinion states.

The justices ruled that in cases where the defendant’s computer is seized, analyzed and used as evidence, the defendant is entitled to “a mirror image copy of the hard drives for analysis by the defendant’s expert an an appropriately secured laboratory,” the majority opinion states.

“Concerns about security of the evidence and the possibility of any copies being disseminated may be addressed by an appropriate protective order requiring defense counsel to maintain logs of those who have access to the evidence and to return all copies of images and other evidence at the conclusion of the case,” the opinion states.  “It was the State’s duty to produce the mirrored copies of the hard drives, and it was the State’s burden to show why a protective order was necessary.”

The dissent opinion argues nothing in the trial record indicated that Grenning’s defense expert refused to work under the court’s protective order.

“The trial court’s orders in this case conform to rule and constitutional requirements, and the State provided full opportunity for the defendant to engage in discovery,” the dissent opinion states. “Moreover, the defendant made no attempt to engage in the discovery process about which he now complains.”

Defense access to evidence in child pornography cases has been an issue in past years in Pierce County. Prosecutors argued they didn’t want to give out the evidence, saying its a crime to distribute sexual images of children. Defense attorneys argued they needed the material to prepare for their clients’ trials.

After differing rulings by Pierce County Superior Court judges, prosecutors asked the state Supreme Court in 2006 to weigh in on three pending cases.

In 2007, the state’s highest court ruled that prosecutors must share with defense attorneys copies of child pornography they planned to use as evidence against criminal defendants. In the 8-1 decision, the justices decided a defendant’s right to a fair trial and adequate legal representation require copies of the material to be turned over. Trial court judges could put reasonable restrictions in place to make sure the pornography wasn’t disseminated to third parties, the justices added.

“With a restrictive protective order, copies can be maintained in a manner that protects the interest of the victims while ensuring defense counsel the opportunity to adequately prepare,” said Justice Charles Johnson, who wrote for the majority at the time.

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