Florida robbery suspect wants NSA phone records to exonerate him

Alec Hill Contributor
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A Fort Lauderdale, Florida, man on trial for robbery is hoping for some help in his defense from a newly discovered source — the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance data.

Terrence Brown, 40, has been charged with the robbery of multiple armored trucks on their way to banks in the South Florida area. The robberies took place over the course of several months ending on October 1st, 2010. Brown and four other men have all pleaded not guilty.

A sixth man, Nathaniel Morris, 34, is already serving life in prison for the murder of one of the truck drivers outside of a Bank of America during the last hold-up. Morris is co-operating with the prosecution in order to avoid the death penalty, and has testified that the five men currently on trial were his accomplices.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Wednesday that the case hinges on the suspects’ phone records, as the FBI is trying to use them to corroborate Morris’s testimony by proving that all of the suspects were nearby when the robberies and murder took place.

But Brown’s phone records from before September 2010 are nowhere to be found, according to the prosecution. Brown was a Metro PCS customer, which does not keep records that far back.

Undaunted, Brown’s attorney, Marshall Louis Dore, filed court documents arguing that in the wake of the NSA phone-tapping scandal, it is very possible that the government has  held onto the proof that he feels will exonerate his client.

The secret government phone-tapping program, first leaked to the Guardian by former CIA employee Edward Snowden a week ago, ordered major cell phone service providers such as Verizon to hand over the call records of millions of customers.

(READ: TheDC’s coverage of Snowden’s latest revelations)

“The president of the United States has recognized this program has been ongoing since 2006 … to gather the phone numbers [and related information] of everybody including my client in 2010,” Louis said in court on Wednesday.

The creative request is complicated, because according to his wife — who testified for the prosecution — Brown didn’t own his own cell phone at the time of the robberies.  Instead, Vesta Murat Brown said, he occasionally borrowed one from family or friends.

This leaves open the possibility that the phone records will be entirely irrelevant to the case if Brown did not have a phone with him at the time. Brown is apparently also not denying his role in some of the robberies. Instead, Louis is only attempting to clear him of being present on July 26, 2010, when one of the robberies took place.

It remains unclear whether the U.S. Department of Justice will agree to release the phone records, but David Oscar Markus, a lawyer who has watched the case, feels that it would be hypocritical not to: “If the government is spying on our phone calls, it can’t then claim in the same breath that it won’t provide those calls when it helps the defense.”