September 22, 2013

Experts: Mom's strategy in Ayla case could backfire

Trista Reynolds says she will release details about her daughter's case. But legal experts say that using publicity can often do more harm than good.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

Trista Reynolds plans to release details about the case of her missing daughter, Ayla, to the public Tuesday in hopes, she said, it will lead to charges against Ayla's father.

Trista Reynolds
click image to enlarge

Trista Reynolds

The Associated Press

Justin DiPietro was caring for the 20-month-old child in his Waterville home when he reported her missing on Dec. 17, 2011.

Maine State Police said in May 2012 that Ayla is probably dead. The case is still being investigated.

Reynolds and her supporters say the state has all the evidence needed for a prosecution.

But legal experts say it's not that simple and public pressure and publicity can often do more harm than good.

In a case like Ayla's, law enforcement officials are battling not only a complicated case that can be difficult to prosecute, but also intense pressure from an angry public seeking justice.

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said Maine's investigators and prosecutors are frustrated, but won't allow emotion -- either their own or those of the family -- to have an impact on the case.

DiPietro said he last saw Ayla, wearing pajamas that said "Daddy's Princess," when he put her to bed at his 29 Violette Ave. home the night of Dec. 16, 2011.

He had moved from Portland into his mother's home in October, when he took temporary custody of Ayla, so his mother could help care for her. His mother, Phoebe, was not home the night Ayla disappeared, but his sister and girlfriend and their children were.

When DiPietro got up the next morning, Ayla was gone, he told police. His call to them sparked a search that became a criminal investigation two weeks later.

Before that day, Ayla was the center of a custody battle between her parents. She had gone to live with DiPietro when Reynolds went into rehabilitation for substance abuse. The day before she disappeared, Reynolds filed for permanent custody.

Since then, the battle between the two has been over whether DiPietro is to blame for Ayla's disappearance.

Public statements from the families and heavy media coverage have fired up public emotion, including frequent calls on websites set up to chronicle the case for DiPietro's imprisonment or even death.

DiPietro and his supporters have said Ayla was taken from the home by strangers, a claim Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said doesn't "pass the straight-face test."

The investigation, which police have called the largest criminal case in the state's history, is now a month older than Ayla was when she disappeared.

Tired of waiting for an answer, Reynolds plans to reveal what a website run by her family calls horrific physical evidence.

Earlier this month, Reynolds told a television interviewer that police told her they'd found Ayla's blood in DiPietro's vehicle, on his shoes and in his bedroom.

Police also said in January 2012 that they found traces of her blood in the Violette Avenue home's basement.

THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION

If what Reynolds says is true, that evidence may appear to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt -- the legal threshold needed to convict a person of a crime in the United States.

But the public and the Reynolds family are not capable of making that judgment, said Josh Tepfer, an attorney and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

The center, a joint project of schools of law at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, maintains a national registry of exonerations -- crime convictions that are overturned when the person is proven innocent.

The center has documented more than 2,000 exonerations in the United States over the past 23 years, and said that number represents a small percentage of those wrongfully convicted, Tepfer said.

(Continued on page 2)

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