The camera guy was already there when Detective Scott Sayers pulled up to the 79-year-old victim's Earlywood Drive home in March of last year, ready to gather footage for A&E's true-crime reality show, The First 48. There was a phone number detectives could call to notify a camera crew that they were dispatched to a homicide. This time, the crew beat the detective.
Sayers entered the house and found the victim on the dining room floor. Someone had hit her with a stool and strangled her. The cameras soaked the scene in, footage that would later be used in the 13th season's 22nd episode, which aired in early October 2013. The footage would also play a role in foiling prosecutors' case, at least for the moment.
After the crime scene was taped off, the victim's family told police that two credit card companies had left messages on her answering machine informing her of suspicious activity on her missing cards. Eventually, Detective Sayers learned that a suspect had used one to buy an iPad at a Walmart, and he obtained surveillance footage of the purchase. Police then fingered two men who had been living out of a car. They'd been arrested two days earlier in Richardson for stealing an iPhone. Dallas police transferred them from a Richardson jail to police headquarters to interview them. (Police declined to be interviewed about the case.)
One of the men was 28-year-old Daniel Brooks, who would become the lead suspect in the murder case. He was working as a veterinary assistant when he fell in with the other man, and "that was the end of that," his lawyer, Bradley Lollar, tells Unfair Park. Brooks admitted to using the victim's credit card to buy the iPad.
The other suspect, David Herron, admitted that Brooks dropped him off at Northwest Highway and Jupiter Road, a little less than a mile from the victim's house, and that about 45 minutes later Brooks came back with a purse and some jewelry. He looked upset, Herron told police.
Herron told the detective something else important, too: The cowboy boots Brooks wore when he was arrested might be the same ones he wore when he broke into the victim's house. Sayers believed there could be blood on the boots, records show, so he got a search warrant and retrieved them. Then he walked into Dallas PD headquarters, boots in hand. The show's cameras captured the moment.
Brooks' case went to trial this month, and those boots loomed large. His attorney argued that a technician should have examined and preserved the boots for safe transfer to a forensic lab. This, the lawyer wrote in a motion, is proper "chain of custody."
"In this case," Lollar went on, "Sayers broke the first link in the chain when he failed to follow the best practices by retrieving the boots himself and displaying them sensationally for The First 48 cameras."
Prosecutors disagreed, and evidence showed that the blood on the boots more than likely belonged to the victim, while Lollar contended it could have been planted there by Herron, his partner-in-alleged-crime. For whatever reason, the jurors were unconvinced: The case resulted in a hung jury. His new court date is set for October 27. Herron is still awaiting trial.
Though it's unclear what role Sayers' handling of the boots played in the jurors' decision, it raises questions about how The First 48 might impact the work of detectives, especially in murder cases. In January, the Observer's Miami sister paper, Miami New Times, published a story about how at least 15 Miami men portrayed as murderers on the show were later proven innocent. Lollar used the New Times article as evidence.
To get the footage they need to create the show's dramatic and tense situations, camera crews are allowed to film at the crime scene with few apparent restrictions. The Dallas PD entered into a contract with the show to "showcase the great work done by our department and show the day to day challenges faced by homicide detectives in Dallas," a spokesman wrote Unfair Park in an email. The contract ended late last year and was not renewed because "the department chose to go in a different direction."
According to police, the show's producer had control over editorial decisions. The contract stipulated the Dallas PD and its detectives had to be portrayed in a balanced and fair way and that the show was "not intended to portray CAPERS (Crimes Against Persons division), the DPD, the City, or its officers, employees and personnel in a negative light." Police said the "negative light" part was to prevent the show from creating a "blooper reel, as that would tend to be inappropriate."
Lollar said the police got to see the episode before it was aired and sign off on it. Police told us this is standard practice so "no unintended or inappropriate material/information" airs. "Again, [as] the producer maintains 'absolute editorial control of the Program,'" police told us, "we maintained the ability to view and make requests for edit where we saw fit."
Lollar argues that if nothing else, having camera crews in the crime scene is disrespectful to the victims. "I don't think the police are thinking this through."
Send your story tips to the author, Sky Chadde.