Terry Childs: Another Christmas in jail

As we head into the last few weeks of the decade, Terry Childs heads to trial -- and prepares to spend another Christmas behind bars

I haven't written much about the Terry Childs case recently, mainly because there's not much to tell. Childs is still in jail, his bail is still set at a ridiculous $5 million, and he still hasn't had his day in court. It's been nearly 18 months since his arrest for refusing to hand over administrative passwords to San Francisco's city network.

In that time, three of the four charges against him were dismissed, yet numerous motions for bail reduction have been denied, presumably because the judges are terrified of what they don't understand, and the DA is playing that up. Regardless of what you might think of Childs' culpability in this whole saga, I don't think there's anyone who could think that spending 18 months in a city jail without a trial is in any way a reasonable situation. Anyone involved in this case within the San Francisco city government and prosecutor's office should be deeply ashamed at how this case has (or hasn't) played out.

[ InfoWorld contributing editor Paul Venezia has led the way in reporting the bizarre case of Terry Childs. Consult our InfoWorld special report for a complete index of that coverage. ]

So what's the holdup? I wish I knew. It's probable that the DA has done no homework on the technical issues in play here and is instead more than willing to use the Frankenstein offense: It's different, so it must be killed. On the other hand, maybe the city did figure out just how ridiculous the whole scenario is but was too far down the line to pull back the reins and is continuing with the prosecution just to save face.

But almost guaranteed is the fact that the DA wants this to fade into obscurity and then get it over with. In the meantime, Terry Childs will spend yet another Christmas in jail.

But this Christmas may be different from the last -- opening statements in the case are set to begin on Monday, and reportedly Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, will be called as a witness. You may recall that Childs gave the passwords to Newsom shortly after being incarcerated. That will certainly be some interesting testimony.

If you've been following this case at all, you'll recall that in the summer of 2008, this blog was filled with speculation regarding public statements made by the city and the general lack of a technical foundation. It then proceeded to get worse, with some comments seemingly made up out of whole cloth, put forth by those who lacked even a basic level of understanding of the technical nature of the case. The "1,100 modems" comment certainly comes to mind. That's died down considerably, probably because they would've had to hire a fiction writer to keep up the initial pace.

What we're left with is still very murky. The scenario painted by the DA is quite damning, but doesn't jive with statements made on the record by persons that were directly involved in the San Francisco IT department when all of this went down. The power-outage red herring, the "no password recovery" configuration settings, and the backdoors were all proven to be either consistent with sound network security or complete falsehoods. But most of that was pushed under the carpet. Lie on the front page, retract on the back page, so to speak.

As I've followed this case through all the twists and turns, I'm still very interested in the same thing I was at the outset -- that if Childs is to go to trial, that he be tried using sound technical reasoning, not claims of witchcraft pushed on nontechnical jurors who may or may not be able to download Firefox, much less understand the intricacies of strict network security policies. It makes you wonder if the concept of "a jury of one's peers" is reasonable. Given the nature of this case, wouldn't that jury be made up of Cisco CCIEs?

Naturally, that's not going to happen, but I do hope that both sides have sound technical expertise at their fingertips, especially in trying to relate very technical information to a nontechnical audience that will ultimately decide one of the most technical computer crime cases in recent memory.

So as we pass through the last Christmas of this decade, and the start of what's sure to be a lengthy trial, I can only hope that somewhere on the other side there's a fair judgement waiting for Terry Childs. After all this time, he deserves that at the very least.

This story, "Terry Childs: Another Christmas in jail," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in security and networking at InfoWorld.com.


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