Judge rules on phone records
Justice says evidence is inadmissible in murder trial
September 25, 2001
Steamboat Springs — DEA Agent Donald Sperry overstepped his bounds when he obtained phone records under a false pretense, Justice Joseph Quinn ruled Tuesday when he decided the phone records would be inadmissible in the murder trial of Thomas Lee Johnson.
Sperry asked for the records on June 26, 2000, in the homicide investigation under the pretense that he needed them for a federal drug investigation. Quinn said the Steamboat Police Department could have received a legal warrant for the same information, making it more likely to be admissible in the trial.
“There was no need to use his federal subpoena authority,” Quinn said.
Sperry’s decision to ask for the phone records from US West came three days after Johnson allegedly made a phone call from a pay phone in Steamboat Springs to ex-wife Michelle Linnebur and said he had killed Lori Bases, according to court documents.
Police investigators from Steamboat were on the line at Linnebur’s Byers home when Johnson made his alleged statements about the Bases murder. The officers taped part of the conversation. The wiretap they used will be admissible, Quinn ruled, though he still needs to decide on the admissibility of certain statements from the phone conversation.
Previous arguments over the admissibility of the phone records had implications beyond the importance of ruling on the documentation, a defense attorney said. Two days after Judge Joel S. Thompson subpoenaed Sperry to testify about how he obtained the records, Sperry arrested Thompson’s live-in girlfriend on drug charges, leading Thompson to decide he had to quit the case. The state appointed Quinn to replace Thompson.
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Norm Townsend, Johnson’s court-appointed attorney, said Sperry’s decision to arrest Thompson’s girlfriend was motivated by Thompson’s request that Sperry testify in court about how he got the records. Sperry denied all allegations, saying he had been tracking the girlfriend for many months prior to the arrest.
Quinn upheld the admissibility of search warrants obtained by Steamboat Detective Dave Kleiber and the insurance and phone records they produced. The defense wanted those records taken out of the trial.
Quinn ruled not to allow evidence the prosecution says points to Johnson’s history of violence toward women, saying it was not relevant enough to the charges and could sway a jury for the wrong reasons.
Quinn will rule on the defense’s motion to change the venue of the trial today. He will also rule on the admissibility of certain statements from police interviews and phone conversations.