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Emails between Williamson County officials highlight tug-of-war in 'Live PD' video

Email exchanges between former Sheriff Robert Chody and Williamson County DA Shawn Dick were recently obtained by the KVUE Defenders.

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas — A battle between the Williamson County district attorney and former Sheriff Robert Chody played out in emails recently obtained by the KVUE Defenders, centering on Dick’s effort to get raw, unedited video from a reality show.

Pages of messages between them highlight their friction in the months before Chody’s indictment last fall on evidence-tampering charges in the death of Javier Ambler.

The inability for prosecutors to get raw footage from the show took center stage in the months after “Live PD” began broadcasting the arrests of Williamson County suspects.

Emails obtained by the KVUE Defenders show District Attorney Shawn Dick wrote Chody in June 2019 about needing to get “Live PD” video: “I believe my requests are clear, reasonable and have been consistently presented to you and your department over the course of ‘Live PD.’”

Chody replied: “I’m sure we can come up with a solution. Do you want me to hold the video or send it to you?”

Then the County's general counsel, Jason Nassour, weighed in: “Shawn has attempted to and incorrectly placed a responsibility on WCSO ... I do not believe WCSO is violating any laws.” 

Dick, then in his first term, had reason to be especially careful about getting every piece of evidence in a criminal case.

A generation of earlier prosecutors did not disclose evidence pointing to the exoneration of Michael Morton, leading to Morton’s wrongful conviction in his wife’s murder and prompting state lawmakers to make such disclosures state law. He was exonerated in 2013.

As the email exchanges continued between Dick and Chody, the death of Javier Ambler loomed in the background, with Dick later saying he didn’t know about Ambler’s death at the time.

RAW VIDEO: Austin-area Black man cries 'I can’t breathe!' then dies in sheriff’s custody

Another year passed before Dick and the public learned about what happened to the 40-year-old Black father. That’s when the KVUE Defenders first revealed details of Ambler’s death in March 2019, and that “Live PD” destroyed its video of deputies chasing Ambler for failing to dim his headlights, then Tasing him as he shouted that he couldn’t breathe.

Dick opened an investigation into why the show erased the video, culminating in evidence-tampering indictments against Chody and Nassour. Their attorneys said they committed no crime.

The email exchanges continued between Dick and Chody in the summer of 2019, and intensified in the spring of 2020, when Chody, against the wishes of county commissioners, brought the show back after commissioners ended an agreement with producers.

Dick complained to Chody that his new agreement with “Live PD” and its production company, Big Fish Entertainment, “still does not address our basic needs.”

Throughout 2019 and 2020, Dick said he tried for months to get the videos in routine cases.

In emails at the time and in a recent interview, Dick said Williamson County prosecutors never got a single raw “Live PD” video.

“Once we found the right address, we still got no response from Big Fish Entertainment. And when we did get a response, it was basically, ‘We don’t have to comply with your subpoenas,’” Dick said. “They could destroy it before we could ever get a subpoena to New York.”

Dick then began dropping cases and intercepting others before they could be filed, repeating in an April 2020 email to Chody, “If you want us to prosecute your cases, you will need to make sure that on ‘Live PD’ cases that … the unedited, unaired footage will be submitted with your criminal files to our office.”

Dick said prosecutors ultimately dropped or declined dozens of cases because of an inability to get “Live PD” footage, many that otherwise likely would have been fully prosecuted.

“It always causes you concern, especially if you believe you arrested the right person and you have a case that could be proven,” he said.

Georgetown attorney Lytza Rojas represented a 21-year-old man arrested on “Live PD” on drug possession charges. It’s one of the cases Dick dismissed.

“Due to the Michael Morton Act, and just fundamental fairness in proceedings, we have to have everything," she said.

“Live PD” has been off the air since June, canceled two days after our report on Ambler’s death.

But Texas lawmakers are now considering a bill that would ban reality TV from partnering with law enforcement.

In a statement Friday, Big Fish Entertainment said: 

"Big Fish responds timely and responsibly to properly served legal demands concerning its footage. It has addressed scores of subpoenas and other formal demands across the country, asserting its shield law privileges where appropriate (which courts have recognized as valid), and has on occasion provided outtakes when the footage exists and the demands were timely. Big Fish did not receive any properly served subpoena or preservation letter concerning the Ambler footage in the weeks following Mr. Ambler’s tragic death, as neither Travis County nor Williamson County took such steps.”

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