An 83-year-old Hereford man indicted last year for the sexual abuse a young female relative more than a decade ago has been ordered to stand trial in two months even though the prosecutor admits key evidence was accidentally destroyed by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in 2008.
Edward Lee Thomas will face a jury March 10 on felony charges which allege he molested a child under the age of 15 on three occasions in early 2007. He was not indicted by a Cochise County grand jury until August 2019, 12 years after the matter was investigated by the sheriff’s office.
Court records show a sheriff’s detective forwarded the matter to the county attorney at the time for possible prosecution. The girl’s mother expressed concern about moving ahead so Thomas was not charged.
Then in late 2018, the girl, who is now in her 20s, inquired about the old investigation and supported the Cochise County Attorney’s Office in pursuing prosecution. Sex crimes against children do not have a statute of limitation in Arizona.
However, the case hit a snag when it was discovered that key items from the decade-old investigation file were missing. Among the items no longer available are records from 2007 of a detective’s interview with the girl and other family members.
Prosecutor Michael Powell conceded that the sheriff’s office received a destruction of evidence notice from a deputy county attorney in 2008 that contained the molestation investigation’s case number instead of a drug investigation case number. The error was then compounded when the sheriff’s office destroyed the evidence even though a different suspect’s name was listed on the notice.
One piece of evidence still in existence is a February 2009 recording of a detective’s interview with Thomas, although it’s not clear what prompted that interview. Sheriff’s records note that in mid-2009, the detective once again referred the matter for possible prosecution, but Powell said the county attorney’s office has no record of a second referral.
Thomas is represented by defense attorney Roger Contreras, who argued before Judge Tim Dickerson on Dec. 13 for dismissal of the charges on the basis of due process violations. Contreras contended that the destroyed items may have contained exculpatory evidence beneficial to Thomas and that defense needs the records to challenge the state’s witnesses.
“Under these circumstances, a fair trial will never be possible and the Indictment in its entirety should be dismissed with prejudice,” Contreras argued.
Dickerson acknowledged some concerns about the destroyed evidence, but he denied the dismissal motion. The judge noted the defense failed to prove the destruction was “an intentional act” intended to give the State “a tactical advantage” at trial.
According to court records, Thomas recently rejected a plea offer even though he faces decades in prison if convicted of all charges. He is out of custody on his own recognizance pending trial and is under order to have no contact with the alleged victim.