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Berkshire DA cites action by former Dalton Police chief in dropping case against rape defendant

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The Dalton Police chief has begun an internal investigation into the department's handling of evidence in a 2018 rape case. On Monday, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office dropped prosecution of the case, citing a directive by a former chief to withhold evidence from a police report. 

DALTON — A man scheduled to go on trial Monday in the rape of a child no longer faces charges, after a prosecutor learned that information intentionally was excluded from a police report on the case at the direction of a former chief.

The missing material was “exculpatory,” according to Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, meaning that it could have helped lead a judge or jury to find the man not guilty.

On Monday, the DA’s office notified the Berkshire Superior Court that it was dropping charges against the defendant, Stephen Carmel. His trial has been delayed, like many others, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In that court filing, Harrington’s office said that Saturday, an assistant district attorney “was made aware of exculpatory information previously withheld by the Dalton Police Department at the direction of the prior Dalton Police Department administration.”

In an interview, Harrington confirmed that, based on information gathered so far, her office believes that former Chief Jeffrey E. Coe, who agreed to leave his post in 2020, instructed an officer to remove information from a report he had prepared concerning the web search history on the alleged victim’s cellphone.

“It was a purposeful destruction of evidence,” Harrington said. “We no longer have the phone. We no longer have the evidence, which is really the key for us in having to dismiss this charge.”

Dalton Police Chief Deanna Strout said she has begun an internal probe into why evidence gathered during the department’s investigation of the rape and indecent assault and battery, reported in July 2018, was expunged from a final report.

What’s more, Strout said she has been asked by Harrington’s office to examine whether evidence was withheld from other cases handled by the department. Strout, who was selected as chief after Coe’s departure, said she will be interviewing all officers and submitting a report to the DA’s office. She declined to estimate how long the interviews and investigation will run.

“It depends on how far we have to go,” she said. “They want to know whether this is more than a one-time event. There’s a little more to it.”

Though the DA’s office has linked the missing evidence to the administration of the former chief, Strout said it was too early to say whether she will seek to question Coe.

“Until I have all of the information, I think it’s premature to be saying anything,” she said, but added, in reference to Coe: “He’s definitely involved.”

“I want to know everything before I say anything [more],” Strout said. “I want to have all the facts in front of me.”

Harrington said that when it receives Strout’s report on the matter, it will consider how to respond. She did not rule out legal consequences for anyone involved in a willful removal of evidence from police records.

“If it rises to the level of criminal activity, we would pursue that,” she said.

Two listed phone numbers for Coe in the area were not in service Monday. The Eagle sent an email to Coe seeking comment on the claim that he instructed an officer to withhold essential information from a report.

Joseph Pacella, the Springfield attorney representing Carmel, said that while his client is pleased to have the case dismissed, he won’t get the chance to be fully cleared.

“This is imperfect. My client wanted to prove his innocence,” Pacella said.

“He wanted to prove his innocence and was relishing the opportunity to do so. I was very confident at trial that we were going to prove his innocence. We were all geared up to go and had a number of family members that planned to testify. Frankly, he would have testified himself. He’s always told them this never happened. It was infatuation [on the part of the alleged victim] and maybe a cry for attention.”

Pacella said he was told by the DA’s office over the weekend that it had discovered the problem with the altered report.

“In my opinion, the DA’s office did the most honorable thing they could at this point,” Pacella said. “They communicated to me as soon as they knew, and did the right thing without forcing us to have to ask the judge to make a decision.”

“There’s no other decision to make than to do what they did,” he said. “But, that’s not always how it works.”

Case investigation

The department’s investigation of the rape and indecent assault allegation, which involved a 13-year-old girl, was being handled by Officer Dorothy Litz — she previously used the last name DiMouro — with help from at least one other officer.

Litz later filed a complaint accusing Coe of workplace harassment and discrimination.

That action prompted Dalton officials to place Coe on a paid administrative leave. While Coe’s attorney argued at a hearing that Litz’s complaint was unfounded, Coe later accepted a substantial severance package. Litz had left the department while Coe was chief but has rejoined the force under Strout.

The DA’s office declined to specify the nature of the evidence it says was ordered excluded from the police report. But, Harrington and Karen Bell, the office’s first assistant district attorney, said the information, which had been taken from the victim’s cellphone, would be seen as “exculpatory” for the defendant.

Such evidence must be shared with defense attorneys. It was not, in this case, leading the DA’s office to drop charges. Harrington said the prosecution would have depended, to a large degree, on the victim’s credibility.

On Saturday, Megan Tesoniero, an assistant district attorney, met with a Dalton Police official to let him know he would not be called as a witness at the trial that was to begin Monday. It was then, Harrington said, that the office learned that a report related to an analysis of the alleged victim’s cellphone had been changed, reportedly at the direction of the former chief.

“He disclosed to her that he had written a different police report that he had deleted,” Harrington said. “And that the prior chief had explicitly told him what information he could include in this police report.

“This evidence is no longer available to us, and it is information that would be highly relevant to the defense,” she said.

The Eagle’s Amanda Burke contributed reporting.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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