Lost evidence in the age of DNA

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For a while now, we have heard about exonerations obtained due to DNA testing. The current number from the Innocence Project stands at, I believe, 208. One of the more common refrains you hear from champions of innocence is that there are thousands more in jail that are innocent and have no way of proving it. In some cases, there is no DNA evidence and in some, it is lost.

The Denver Post did a terrific series last month on lost evidence, which they called “Trashing the Truth“. (I apologize if its been covered in the blogosphere before – I just stumbled across it.) The Post engaged in a detailed investigation of evidence rooms across the country and profiled several cases where DNA evidence has been lost or destroyed – willfully or otherwise – and innocence bids are foreclosed.

Authorities across the country have lost, mishandled or destroyed tens of thousands of DNA samples since genetic fingerprinting revolutionized crime solving 20 years ago.

Evidence from cold cases goes misplaced across Colorado.

Delicate traces of human biology sit stuffed into pizza and fried-chicken boxes in rat-infested New Orleans evidence vaults.

And specimens are dumped by the truckload in Los Angeles, Houston and New York – sometimes soon after high-profile exonerations.

In a country whose prime-time TV lineup glorifies DNA forensics, many real-life evidence vaults are underfunded and mismanaged, struggling to keep up with technological advances and lagging behind most corner groceries in the way they track valuable crime-scene items.

Facing real-world training and space challenges, even the best-intentioned clerks commonly toss DNA samples, especially from old cases, in what one expert calls the “sledge-o-matic approach to clearing out evidence rooms.”

“You can’t keep everything,” said Arthur Morrell, Orleans Parish clerk of Criminal Court.

The Denver Post examined purges in 10 states and found that authorities destroyed biological evidence in nearly 6,000 rape and murder cases during the past decade, rendering them virtually unsolvable. Over the past three decades, the loss or destruction of DNA evidence in 28 states has undermined efforts by at least 141 prisoners to prove their innocence, The Post has found.

In this age of high profile DNA cases, it is incumbent upon states to reorganize their storage procedures and provide high-tech facilities. If the criminal justice system is indeed a pursuit of the truth and of justice, then it cannot simultaneously aid injustice by destroying evidence.

There are just far too many instances and far too many inmates profiled by the Post. I strongly recommend that you take this Sunday afternoon to read through some of them, available at the link above. One of the higher profile innocence bids is that of Tim Masters, who was convicted with virtually no evidence, but primarily on some sketches that he had done (he was 15) and an FBI profile that was never created.

Edit: Another one to look at is this piece on Clarence Moses-El, who was first suspected of raping a woman because his name came to her in a dream. (I kid you not.) The three people she initially named (right after the incident) were never interviewed by police. Finally, years after his conviction, a judge ordered DNA testing. One month later, the evidence was destroyed by the police department.

Some of the comments in these stories by law enforcement officials and prosecutors are just disgusting. The arguments they put forth in opposing motions for DNA testing are very very disturbing and make you wonder if they really are seeking justice.

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