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Judge hears evidence in Kan. prison recordings case

A judge heard testimony on whether prosecutors improperly used secret recordings of conversations between inmates and their attorneys


By Margaret Stafford
Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A law enforcement officer assigned to review tapes of calls at a federal prison in Kansas testified Tuesday that he quit listening if he heard inmates talking to their attorneys.

Jeff Stokes, a special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, testified during the first day of a two-day hearing being held to determine whether prosecutors improperly used secret recordings of conversations between inmates and their attorneys at the privately run Leavenworth Detention Center.

Stokes told the federal judge overseeing the hearing that he was reviewing tapes of the calls as part of an investigation of contraband smuggling. He said federal prosecutors told him to stop listening if the call was to an attorney.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson scheduled the hearing to consider findings by a court-appointed investigator concerning the government's failure to comply with the investigation and the appropriate response or remedies. More than 20 witnesses — including federal prosecutors and prison officials — have been subpoenaed to testify.

Robinson appointed Ohio attorney David Cohen to review the case and, in 2016, tasked him with independently investigating recordings at the Correction Corp. of America prison in Leavenworth.

During the hearing in Kansas City, Robinson also expects to consider any other issues the parties want to address related to the investigation. Federal Public Defender Melody Brannon asked Robinson last year to order the government to show why it should not be held in contempt for destroying evidence.

The government wiped clean the hard drive on the one computer dedicated to playing videos from the prison — after the court ordered the government to produce all hard drives from the U.S. attorney's office. The move prevented Cohen from potentially learning who viewed which recordings and when.

The investigation grew out of a prison contraband case during which criminal defense lawyers discovered that the prison was routinely recording meetings between attorneys and their clients.

Robinson subsequently expanded the probe to look into the conduct of federal prosecutors and staff, citing the government's lack of transparency about its possession, knowledge and use of recordings. She said she found that prosecutors have made inconsistent, inaccurate or misleading statements.

The investigation is now focused on whether the government intentionally viewed or listened to attorney-client conversations.

The government contends any interference in attorney-client communications must be purposeful for it to rise to a Sixth Amendment violation. But Robinson has noted that "some evidence" already exists that the government purposefully obtained and used attorney-client communications related to criminal defendants.

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