A recent four-part series in the Denver Post about evidence in criminal cases detailed how police departments across the U.S. store and dispose of crucial biological evidence. The Post examined 10 states in which authorities destroyed biological evidence in nearly 6,000 rape and murder cases during the past decade. The investigation also revealed that over the past 30 years, destruction of DNA evidence in 28 states has undermined efforts by at least 141 prisoners to prove their innocence.

Of the 30 police departments nationwide surveyed by the paper, 70% said that they faced “highly critical” evidence storage problems. Even so, the Post discovered that few jurisdictions have prioritized the creation of adequate systems to track and store evidence in criminal cases. The problem has led to great frustrations among attorneys and clerks who are charged with protecting evidence. In North Carolina, Superior Court clerk Al Jean Bogle was shocked to discover that biological evidence that could have led to the exoneration of inmate Willie Grimes had been destroyed in an effort to make room for more evidence. Grimes, a 60-year-old man who is recovering from cancer, was convicted nearly two decades ago based on expert hair analysis testimony that has now been debunked by many as junk science. Though new DNA technology could confirm or refute the expert’s conclusions, the hairs, the victim’s underwear, and a rape evidence kit from the case were all destroyed in 1990 by Bogle’s predecessor. “I’ve been clerk for almost eight years. We’ve got four truck tires in the evidence room. We’ve got bales of marijuana that have been in there since I became clerk. And Mr. Grimes’ evidence, evidence in a life case, is gone. I hate it,” Bogle said. In Florida, similar storage space shortages have led Union County officials to pile evidence in bathrooms that are still in use. In New Orleans, defense attorney Ava de Montagne was forced to get a court order to search the city courthouse’s attic storage unit for rape kits she hoped would exonerate some of her clients. After de Montagne finally located the kits and placed them in the courthouse’s basement vault for safe keeping, Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and destroyed the crucial DNA evidence.

Though the paper chronicled a number of similar stories detailing the mismanagement of biological evidence, the Post also offered praise for departments who are working to appropriately handle the evidence crisis. It noted that the Dallas Police Department has been preserving DNA evidence specimens since the 1970s, and the practice has led the department to achieve success in tracking down culprits in decades-old crimes. The paper also noted that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina has greatly improved its evidence storage practices after a string of wrongful conviction cases in the state. The department now freezes biological specimens such as clothing cuttings and rape kits, and it takes the initiative to notify prisoners when it finds DNA evidence for possible appeals.

Former FBI Director William Sessions noted the importance of properly storing and tracking biological evidence, stating, “The point is that DNA needs to be saved. Justice rides on it.”

(Denver Post, July 23, 2007). See Innocence. Read the article. Read the series.