Careful what you have on your cell phone—especially in a murder case

By Paul La Rosa

In every murder case, there is some collateral damage. I’m not talking about the ripple effect of how deeply a murder affects both the victim and defendant’s families. I’m talking about how the spotlight that can shine embarrassingly bright on innocent bystanders who had nothing to do with the crime, those whose only “crime” is that they had the misfortune of being in the victim or defendant’s circle when the murder was committed.

That’s especially true in this era of cell phones which is as close as anyone will come to knowing exactly what’s on your mind.

I was reminded of this after covering a murder trial last week in California where this “collateral damage” effect was on full display. A woman named Erika Sandoval was on trial for shooting and killing her ex-husband, Police Officer Daniel Green, while he sat on the toilet in his own home.

Erika admitted on the stand that she broke into her ex’s house, grabbed two of his loaded guns and sat in a closet while he made a smoothie. Eventually, he went into the bathroom and Erika said she came out of hiding and shot him four times. She testified to that under oath but was not convicted of murder because of a single holdout juror. 

Prosecutors told the jury that one of the motivating factors for the murder was a photo Daniel Green posted on Instagram a week before Erika shot him. The photograph featured Green’s new girlfriend, a young woman named Brenda Vela. 

Suddenly Brenda Vela, who had dated Green two or three times by her estimation, was the center of attention in a horrific murder trial. Not only were her face and name splashed across news reports, she had to take the stand and testify to her private texts between she and Daniel Green. 

Why did you text him, “Let’s get married” when you hardly knew him? Lawyers wanted to know. So something Brenda dashed off in the heat of a flirty moment five years before was now front and center in a murder trial. And she was being asked to explain herself.

There were more of those types of texts with Brenda, now a young mother, being called to account for things she wrote in texts years before. 

Perhaps worse, she learned that Green had surreptitiously audio-recorded her as they had sex. Brenda said she had no idea. 

Adding insult to injury, she also learned that Green was actually texting with another woman at the same time. He was, by all accounts, quite a player. 

Another woman to testify was an ex-colleagues and former girlfriend named Ashely who was forced to get up on the stand and explain her texts found on Green’s cell phone. The low moment for Ashley came when a defense lawyer felt she wasn’t being truthful in her initial testimony. He called her back to the stand and had her read out loud and publicly the sexting texts she had sent to the dead officer five or six years before. 

“I feel so bad for Ashley,” one young woman in the galley said. 

Indeed. Talk about airing dirty laundry. Ashley had nothing to do with the murder, neither did Brenda but both got pulled in as collateral damage and were embarrassed publicly. What their testimony did to their personal relationships, I have no idea but I bet there was some explaining to do. 

I’ve seen this collateral effect in other trials as well, including one where a school employee—who again had nothing to do with the murder—had to testify about bringing a bag of cocaine to a party and using it all night with one of the murderers. Not so great for her career when she is around young children all day long. She ran out of that courtroom and past all the cameras looking exactly like a deer in the headlights. 

They used to say, don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read on the front page of a newspaper. I would add to that, don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to have to read out loud at some criminal trial. 

Maybe think twice before you send that provocative text. What makes you smile in the privacy of your office may make you turn red if called to read it on the stand.

Copyright 2019 by Paul La Rosa. All Rights Reserved.

Paul La Rosa is a CBS News writer & producer, journalist, author and book reviewer. Three-time Emmy Award winner.

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