When Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office detectives entered the Signal Mountain home of a missing woman a couple of weeks ago, the family’s computers were missing.
The computers instead had been turned over to Lee Davis, an attorney representing Matthew Palmgren, the husband of Gail Palmgren, the 44-year-old mother of two who has been missing since April 30.
Davis said in an interview Thursday that the computer hard drives have been sent to technicians to see if any files or history can be recovered that might lead to Gail Palmgren.
“We’ve sent them off to see what’s on them,” he said. “Obviously, if files have been deleted, they’ve been deleted.”
When Davis was asked if Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office investigators were notified about the location of the computers, he said, “I don’t know if they know I have them here or not. I certainly assume they do.”
Janice Atkinson, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said Thursday that she didn’t know if investigators knew where the computers were. She said she’d try to get in touch with them but didn’t respond by press time.
The consent searches of the Palmgren properties, including the couple’s Signal Mountain home on Ridge-rock Drive, a storage unit in Red Bank and lake home in Alabama, were reached in conjunction with local law enforcement, Davis and the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office.
Out of five family properties on the list, three have been searched, all with conditions set by Matthew Palmgren and his attorneys.
As of Thursday, investigators have not found any evidence of foul play or that any crime has been committed in Gail Palmgren’s disappearance. Probable cause that a crime may have been committed must be established to obtain a standard search warrant.
Davis said from what he has seen on the computers, nothing appears to be of value to finding Gail Palmgren.
“From my cursory review, there’s nothing on there. If we get any information on there that helps us identify or direct where Gail went, certainly, we would share that with them [authorities] immediately,” he said.
Attorneys handling evidence of a potential crime belonging to clients they represent is a gray area in the law, said Wesley Oliver, an associate law professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania, who used to practice law in Nashville.
Davis’ law offices are “not a storage unit,” said Oliver. “If it’s a lawyer, he knows what he has. At what point does he have an obligation to the court to prevent obstruction of justice and turn this over?”
Oliver used the comparison of a killer giving his attorney the gun used in a slaying and not necessarily disclosing how the gun was used but just saying he wanted the lawyer to hold it.
He advises students in similar situations to contact a local bar association, or in this state, the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court, to get a written opinion on how to proceed.
According to Tennessee Supreme Court rules of professional conduct, a set of ethical rules that govern attorney conduct, the computers would fall under the confidentiality provision, protecting them from disclosure.
Oliver argued that confidentiality of information is different than evidence.
“To me, the problem seems to be, he seems to be in possession of the computer (law enforcement) doesn’t know he has and won’t be able to discover otherwise,” Oliver said.
Clients’ statements of guilt are protected by attorney-client privilege under law.
The fact that Matthew Palmgren’s attorneys are in possession of the computers does not mean they’re exempt from a search warrant in the future.
However, Oliver said most judges are reluctant to grant warrants for law offices because of the confidential files contained on criminal cases.