Longform

TALE OF THE TAPE

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"It appeared to me that they went well beyond what was necessary to protect themselves and to control this man," Anderson says.

After he was booked, Osipenkof was placed in a holding cell, where he says his calls for some sort of medical help were ignored by jailers. After several hours, Osipenkof says, some jailers entered the holding cell and beat on him some more for making noise.

Anderson says the destroyed videotape also captured that incident, but the holding-cell portion of the tape was not played for the jury in the criminal trial because it did not bear directly on Osipenkof's alleged assault on Bluse.

"A big, major tussle ensues and Mr. Osipenkof is on the ground the entire time," Anderson recalls from seeing the original tape. "You clearly see them [the jailers] fighting with him, hitting him, trying to restrain him."
There is no question, Anderson says, that between the booking-room incident and the holding-cell fracas, Osipenkof was badly hurt.

"I didn't see him until maybe eight days after it happened, and he was in pretty bad shape still then," Anderson says.

As he prepared to defend Osipenkof, Anderson says, it became clear that the original jail tape was the cornerstone of his case.

@rule:
@body:The various cameras installed around Maricopa County's jails do not work like home video cameras. Running standard video would require that tapes be changed constantly, and would create a logistical mess as jailers tried to store complete, 24-hour-per-day videotapes of jail activities.

The jail, therefore, uses time-lapse cameras. While the typical video camera shoots 30 images per second, the jail cameras shoot only three images per second, according to Lieutenant Tom Stroup, who oversees the monitoring system at the Madison Street Jail. The time-lapse system allows a day's worth of activity to be recorded on one two-hour-plus tape, he says.

Because they are time-lapse tapes, Stroup says, the jail videos aren't worth much if they are played on standard videocassette recorders. The result of trying to copy a time-lapse tape and play it on a regular VCR is a jerky, fuzzy sequence of images that fades in and out and looks like a bad cartoon.

Anderson learned how bad the copies are when he first saw a copy of the videotape of Osipenkof's arrival at the jail's booking room. "You couldn't get any benefit out of a copy," he says.

Several times before his trial, Osipenkof was offered plea-bargains, Anderson says, but he refused. Osipenkof says he was willing to risk a jury trial--and a possible seven-year sentence--because he was certain the tape would clear him.

At trial, Anderson says he insisted that the original tape and the jail's time-lapse playing machine be brought to the courtroom, so the jury could clearly see what happened early that morning.

After three days of testimony, the jury had no trouble reaching a verdict. Osipenkof did not even take the stand in his own defense.

Without the tape, though, Anderson and the two jurors say, the trial's outcome could have been quite different. The case would have boiled down to Osipenkof's word against that of two police officers, and Anderson has no doubt that testimony from peace officers in uniform would have carried more weight.

"Can you imagine [Osipenkof] going up against police officers?" Anderson asks. "They would have convicted him in a heartbeat."
Freed, finally, from jail, Osipenkof hired attorney Bruce Feder to file suit against every individual and agency involved in his arrest, including the cities of Phoenix and Chandler, Maricopa County and officers Willrich and Bluse.

One of the first things he did, Feder says, was try to obtain the original jail tape to make sure it would be available for Osipenkof's civil case.

But when he asked the sheriff's department for it, Feder says, a letter came back with bad news. "It just said, 'It's been destroyed. Thank you very much,'" Feder says.

Court records show that, after Osipenkof's acquittal, all of the evidence presented at his trial--including the tape--was returned to the attorneys involved.

Since there was no conviction and no possibility of an appeal, Anderson says, the court did not ship the evidence to the clerk's office for safekeeping, as it would after a conviction. According to the court records, the jail tape was returned to assistant county attorney Monique Branscomb, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Branscomb, now in private practice, says she can't remember for sure what she did with the tape, but assumes she gave it back to the sheriff's department.

"I can't imagine what else I might have done with it," she says. "I don't generally keep evidence from trials with me wherever I go."
Stroup, the official in charge of the jail taping system, says the original tape probably came back to the department and was reused. Generally, he says, the jail only keeps videotapes for six months before reusing them, and he believes that is what happened with the Osipenkof tape.

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David Pasztor