If only…

In every cold case, a series of “if only’s” are always mentioned.

If only…the victim hadn’t accepted that drink from a stranger.

If only…the police responded sooner.

If only…I had paid more attention to whom she was dating.

In Theresa’s case, my biggest “if only” relates to evidence.

If only Theresa’s clothing had been found. If only a skilled detective was on the job who ensured better care was taken in processing the crime scene. If only the evidence retained by the police hadn’t been trashed.

If we had some evidence left from the crime scene, a $1500 DNA test could have been performed on skin cells left on her clothing, saliva, or under her fingernails. (You can get DNA from a stain of body fluid even 30 years after the crime was committed if the evidence was kept at room temperature.)

But that can’t happen now UNLESS the evidence really didn’t get tossed out. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, just because it isn’t in the police file doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. It may have just been misplaced—perhaps tucked away in some forgotten corner of a storage room in Montreal.

Part of the problem with Theresa’s missing evidence stems from the time her crime occurred—in the late 1970s—before the dawn of DNA identification, new forensic technology and computer databases. Crime solving back then was mostly legwork, hunches and lots of interviews. Today, as anyone who has watched a crime show like CSI or Law & Order knows, identifying the culprit could hinge on a microscopic piece of genetic material examined under a microscope in a sterile lab.

What can be done to ensure that cases like Theresa are the rarity rather than the norm?

Here are my suggestions:

1. Adopt a national code for the preservation of evidence.

2. Get a facility large enough to store the evidence.

3. Make sure the facility has 21st century environmental controls to prevent damage to evidence from leaks, flooding and equipment malfunctions (e.g., freezers on the fritz).

4. Staff that facility with experienced and trained evidence technicians (and not the guy who pissed off the police chief).

5. Give them cutting-edge technology—like bar code scanners and the latest cataloguing software so police and prosecutors don’t have to wade through aisles of junk just to find a hair sample.

6. Store at least a portion of biological evidence on tiny lab slides like the Dallas Police Department does. It saves space and is easier to catalogue.

7. Store violent-crime evidence in sturdy plastic (not cardboard) boxes (so the bottoms don’t fall out after years of storage)

8. Purge properly. (Don’t keep the entire mattress when all you need is the blood stain.)

9. Hold the police accountable for destruction or loss of evidence.

“To give the public the impression that the bad guy will be caught and the good guy will be exonerated based on DNA evidence is a fraud. … Because more likely than not, the evidence is in the trash can, and that trash was taken out years ago.”

— Gigi Gordon of the Post Conviction Assistance Center in Southern California

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