The FBI backed away from an Arkansas prosecutor’s statement that its agents would help unlock an iPhone and iPod belonging to two teenagers accused of killing a couple, saying Thursday it hasn’t yet examined the devices and isn’t sure whether it will be able to help.
The FBI’s public statement didn’t rule out such help, but said it does not know enough about the devices to say whether it could help the state’s investigators. It was not immediately clear whether the task would require the same technique the FBI used to access an iPhone linked to a gunman in the mass shootings in California; the FBI hasn’t revealed that method.
On Wednesday, Faulkner County Prosecutor Cody Hiland said the FBI had agreed to help his office in its attempt to unlock the devices, which could contain evidence against four teenagers charged after the shooting deaths of Robert and Patricia Cogdell of Conway, 30 miles north of Little Rock. Hiland said Thursday he couldn’t comment further.
The FBI’s Little Rock office received Hiland’s request this week, the agency said, adding that it considers helping local agencies on a case-by-case basis.
“At the time of the request, no information was provided regarding the device models or operating systems, so FBI Little Rock was not able to state if they would be able to provide assistance. The FBI does not currently have possession of the devices,” the agency wrote. “The FBI’s handling of this request is not related to the San Bernardino matter.”
Earlier this week, a judge agreed to postpone the trial of 18-year-old Hunter Drexler, who has pleaded not guilty to capital murder and other charges, so prosecutors could seek help unlocking the devices. The iPhone belongs to Drexler, while the iPod belongs to 15-year-old Justin Staton, who also pleaded not guilty to capital murder charges and whom the Cogdells raised as their grandson.
State and local authorities across the United States have indicated they want the FBI’s help to unlock iPhones they consider important to pending criminal investigations.
An official at Apple Inc. said the company had not received any phone call, subpoena or other legal instrument from Hiland’s office or other law enforcement agency seeking details about the devices or asking for its help to access them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak publicly about the legal process.
Faulkner County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Hugh Finkelstein said this week that prosecutors had not approached the company because of Apple’s previous responses to other law enforcement agencies.
The FBI’s announcement Monday that it had gained access to an iPhone linked to Syed Farook, who died with his wife in a gun battle with police after they killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December, ended a court battle between Apple and the Obama administration.
Associated Press writers Ted Bridis and Tami Abdollah in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.