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Data on iPhone belonging to actor Michael Jace's wife are focus of murder case

Data on iPhone belonging to actor Michael Jace's wife are focus of murder case
Michael Jace, charged with murder in the shooting death of his wife at their Los Angeles home, is flanked by his attorneys Peter Carr, left, and Jason Sias as he enters a not guilty plea in 2014. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The contents of a white iPhone 5S owned by the wife of TV actor Michael Jace have become an unlikely legal battleground as he faces trial over her death.

Jace's attorneys don't dispute that he killed April Jace, a college financial aid counselor. But they argued that data from her phone could provide valuable insights into what happened in the moments before the "Shield" actor gunned her down May 21, 2014, at their Los Angeles home.

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So the Los Angeles Police Department in March found a "forensic cellphone expert" to sidestep the security features on the phone, according to court papers reviewed by The Times.

The warrant, written by Det. Connie Zych, did not detail the method used to open the phone, nor did police reveal the identity of the cellphone expert.

Experts say it's not unusual that the LAPD was able to crack the security measures of that model iPhone. Apple routinely assisted law enforcement in extracting data from such phones with a valid search warrant. Newer versions of the iPhone have much stronger security systems, and that prompted the FBI to demand that Apple help it get around those barriers during the investigation into the San Bernardino mass shooting by terrorists.

What's significant is how the phone has become the center of a celebrity murder investigation. The judge delayed the start of Jace's trial this year so the phone could be further examined.

Jace's attorney did not specify what they were looking for on the phone other than to say the device might contain more details of what transpired before the killing.

Police said the couple argued "about their relationship" via text message shortly before he opened fire, according to the search warrant.

Defense attorney Jamon Hicks said those texts could help them explain to jurors what happened that night.

"It isn't a whodunit," Hicks said. "It is a state of mind case."

Jason Sias, another attorney on Jace's legal team, said he was worried that the full contents of the phone were not handed over or extracted.

"We wanted to make sure they gave us everything on the phone," he said.

The prosecutor assigned to the case could not be reached for comment.

Shortly after the killing, April Jace's cellphone was locked by a pass code, which "hindered" the investigation, the LAPD's Zych wrote in the court papers. Police obtained a search warrant in June 2014, ordering Apple to assist in extracting data from the phone, according to the search warrant. An Apple technician extracted data and met with investigators in February 2015, the warrant stated.

But in late January, an investigator with the L.A. County district attorney's office again tried to access the data from the phone but could not. The following month, authorities could not even turn the phone on, the warrant stated.

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Investigators learned in March that a forensic cellphone expert could "override" the security features and let authorities view the phone's contents, according to the warrant. A senior investigator with the district attorney's office was then able to examine the phone in April, as was Jace's private cellphone expert, the warrant states.

It's unclear what information they extracted and how it differs from what Apple produced earlier.

Jace, 53, remains in jail. From 2002 to 2008, he played Los Angeles Police Officer Julien Lowe on "The Shield." He also had roles in "Planet of the Apes," "Forrest Gump" and "Boogie Nights."

Twitter: @MattHjourno

Twitter: @lacrimes

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