Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Destroyed evidence in Manatee County, Florida raises eyebrows

Let's play a game called Count the Outrages.

Derrick Williams is serving a life sentence for a rape he says he didn't commit. The Innocence Project of Florida has taken an interest in his case and was in the process of investigating further about the possibility of testing a crucial hair when they were notified that the evidence has been destroyed. In fact, it was destroyed several years ago along with the evidence for as many as 4,000 other cases.

The reason? One of the evidence vaults for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office suffered a flood that led to an infestation of mold. Several thousand cases' worth of evidence was destroyed in 2003 – without the knowledge of the public defender's office or the lawyers for those inmates whose cases were affected. Now that the Sheriff's Office is moving the remaining evidence to a new storage facility, they are taking the opportunity to destroy as much surviving evidence "as legally possible."

Sheriff's Office spokesman Dave Bristow blew off any concerns about the impact this might have on those cases at issue. He said, "These were cases that had already gone through the system, or ones where the chances of solving them were slim and none."

I count three outrages.

First, why is evidence in Manatee County being stored in a place where it is even possible to be flooded? It's not often that the Gulf of Mexico lurches inland several hundred feet. If this were the result of a hurricane, it might be understandable, but it apparently wasn't. Store vital biological evidence inland. Store it in a cool, dry place. Store it in a waterproof chamber. Store it off the ground level. Or face justified accusations of negligence.

Second, it took the Sheriff's Office six years to come clean about the destruction of this evidence. That, in itself, is reason to believe that if the Innocence Project of Florida had never made an inquiry into Williams' case, we would never know what happened to his – or the other – evidence. When did they plan to tell the lawyers for these inmates, or the inmates themselves? Since they let it lapse for six years, it doesn't seem like the loss of evidence in 4,000 cases was a big deal for them.

Third, it's crassly irresponsible to ignore the post-conviction possibility of exoneration for these affected cases. Frankly, it's unacceptable to write them off as if the book has been closed on them and then destroy evidence that you are, by law, required to preserve. We know in at least one of the cases that Manatee County might have had an exoneration on its hands. And on top of that, it appears it was flat out not true that these were all case-closed: "Some of the destroyed evidence was also from unsolved cases, including homicides. Sarasota Police recently made an arrest in a murder from 30 years ago based on DNA and fingerprints from evidence collected at the crime scene."

See these articles for more:

Update from Seth Miller: I count a fourth outrage. It appears that they are destroying more evidence as they move to a new storage facility. In 2006, the Florida Legislature amended the post-conviction DNA testing law to require evidence-holding agencies to preserve physical evidence that may contain DNA for the length of the sentence or for at least sixty days after an execution in a death penalty case. Are they destroying evidence that could still have biological evidence on it despite the mold? Are they destroying evidence that they deem not to matter anymore that wasn't damaged by the flood? These key questions need be answered.

Take, for example, the case of the court and police evidence rooms for Orleans Parish, which were completely flooded and left to mold in the summer heat of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is under sea level to begin with and practically the only thing that was kept under ground were the evidence rooms at the court and the police department. The rising waters affected both old and new evidence.

There are major problems with the way the local authorities handled the evidence as the New Orleans police removed evidence from that room, let it dry out in a dry place, and then simply put it back in the once moldy room. But the court, at least, removed the evidence, did not destroy any of it, and now stores the evidence in a climate-controlled facility well above ground. Additionally, defense, prosecutor, law enforcement, and court officials have come together to think about better ways to preserve evidence so it can maintain its integrity for future use and be easier to locate. As messed up as New Orleans is today, over three years since Katrina, the Manatee Sheriffs could learn a thing or two about how handle natural disasters and avoid destruction of evidence in the future.

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