The Impact of Lost Evidence…

“No one will ever be punished for losing all the evidence in my husband’s murder?” asks Judith Rosenfeld. “How can that be?”

These excerpts are from an article in the Denver Post:

…Aside from hurting post-conviction innocence claims, lost evidence has crippled investigations long before they can reach trials, in instances that include unsolved murders, vehicular homicides and missing- person cases where slayings are suspected.

“It’s painful because losing evidence can all but erase the ability to prosecute,” said Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden. “Anymore, it’s hard enough to get a conviction with evidence.”

…Twenty-eight years after the slaying of filmmaker Morton Rosenfeld, the key suspect is effectively untouchable because of a paperwork mistake that prompted the destruction of evidence. And the victim’s surviving family remains suspended in emotional limbo, haunted by the knowledge that his killer still walks free.

…It wasn’t until 2002 that Rosenfeld’s family, curious about the status of the case, was told that the evidence had been thrown out during a 1983 storage-room cleanup. The destruction log notes that it was authorized by the Larimer district attorney’s office. The former district attorney calls it a paperwork mistake because his staff never condoned scrapping evidence in homicide cases.

“Nobody had told us a thing,” said Judith Rosenfeld, adding that she felt her family should have been notified.

…”Without physical evidence, we couldn’t bring a case,” Alderden said. “Besides, we’ve got hot cases we need to work. We have to ask ourselves, what is the solvability factor of a case?”

…Another case handled by the Larimer County sheriff’s office, the 1973 shooting death of Carmina Anderson near Bellvue, posed similar complications.

By that time, however, Larimer investigators discovered that the physical evidence – including the weapon, a blood-stained rug and other pieces – had disappeared, apparently disposed of following the initial inquest.

They agreed to reopen it, and were actually successful in coaxing Anderson to admit guilt, they said.

But the evidence loss forced them to settle for a plea deal. His attorneys argued that the evidence destruction created an “insurmountable” prejudice against him. The result: he got just a year behind bars for manslaughter.

“Justice just wasn’t served,” Cappeli said. “Even the judge knew that and apologized to me for the way the case was handled.”

If her case helps magnify the need for a strong evidence-preservation law, some good can come out of her own investigation, Capelli said.

…While state statutes and regulations do not create a duty to preserve evidence, leaving such decisions to the courts, authorities also aren’t required to report what they lose or destroy. A similar trend exists nationwide, where The Denver Post found 110 homicide cases, largely through attorneys’ tips, affected by lost biological evidence.

…While some losses go unexplained, evidence problems often can be traced to overcrowded evidence rooms and poor tracking. A national survey by Washington State University showed that more than 70 percent of police departments face critical storage problems.

Alderden, the Larimer sheriff, says he’s currently leasing extra storage lockers to capture the overflow of evidence and case documents. From his decades-long experience in law enforcement, “space is a problem everywhere” in the state.

Lawmakers such as state Rep. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge want to explore possibly building centralized storage facilities to alleviate crowded conditions in local jurisdictions – a suggestion brought to her by some officers during a recent gathering of the Northeast Colorado Peace Officers Association.

Canada also doesn’t have a national mandated policy for retention of evidence. The RCMP has its own policy–they don’t destroy evidence in murder investigations–ever. But it’s up to the provincial police forces to create and enforce their own policies. (See John’s August 8, 2007, blog entry for more details.)

Maybe Canada’s ombudsman can put Rules of Evidence Retention on the agenda of any policing association conferences?? Maybe we can get our own lawmakers to introduce a bill in the Parliament?

Maritime Missy


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