RALEIGH, NC — For decades, claims of innocence have been thwarted by a simple, regrettable fact: The courts and police didn’t know how important pieces of evidence would be as modern science evolved.
Rape kits and blood-stained sheets were thrown away over the years – and, with them, the only shot some prisoners had to prove they were wrongly convicted.
The story of North Carolina’s haphazard collection and storage of vital crime scene evidence can be told through a notable collection of innocent men. Dwayne Dail was set free in 2007 after a nightgown from the rape he’d been convicted of was found and tested after being misplaced for years.
Most recently, investigators at the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found a set of fingerprints in a Hickory police file that proved Willie Grimes had been wrongly convicted.
Nationally, roughly 300 DNA exonerations have relied solely on the availability of crime scene evidence preserved for years.
But while some wrongly convicted inmates eventually located evidence that proved their innocence, dozens more who say they aren’t guilty are resigned to lives in prison because the evidence that could prove their claim has been lost or destroyed.
The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence has fielded 45 applications for help in which DNA testing would settle the claim but the evidence in the cases has been destroyed or lost, said Christine Mumma, director of the center.
North Carolina legislators passed laws in 2001 that specified which biological evidence from decided cases needed to be retained and for how long, as well as evidence in unsolved cases. It established strict parameters for how clerks and police must destroy evidence.
The law requires judges to approve destruction notices, and only after defense attorneys and the Office of Indigent Defense Services has been notified to make sure there is no lingering appeal or unsettled claim. Intentional efforts to tamper with the evidence or block it from being tested is a crime.
But for local law enforcement, undoing habits from decades before remains a challenge.
Rodney Hester, a captain with the Bladen County sheriff’s office, which investigated Joseph Sledge’s case in the 1970s, said his department didn’t create a computerized inventory for evidence until the 1990s. Through the years, the department has lost evidence to a flood and struggled to keep it in good order through multiple relocations.
Hester, who teaches law enforcement techniques at a community college, said he wished the department had done better.
“No one imagined DNA,” he said. “We just didn’t keep a lot of stuff back then, and we didn’t keep up with much of what we did” retain.
Not a priority
Some fear that the new law isn’t being followed. Since 2006, clerks have filed notices to destroy evidence in only 52 cases. Those notices came from only eight counties.
The Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit that investigates claims of innocence, fielded four claims after the laws were passed in which evidence that should have been preserved was lost or destroyed. Mumma wants a central repository of crime scene evidence to standardize storage and preservation.
“It’s just another example of how the criminal justice system is not keeping up with technology,” she said.
While the law applies to cases before 2001 in which evidence still exists, many law enforcement and clerks’ offices haven’t reviewed and categorized those old cases. The problems are particularly pressing at smaller law enforcement agencies, where the staff juggles many responsibilities and may not consider the assignment important.
“It’s considered low on the totem pole,” said Neil Woodcock, executive director of the North Carolina Association for Property and Evidence, an organization that helps law enforcement with proper maintenance of crime scene evidence. “The guy doing it doesn’t take the long-term approach.”
Rick Glazier, a defense lawyer and a state representative from Fayetteville, helped spearhead efforts to reform evidence preservation in 2001 after a sobering lesson from an innocence claim he handled.
In 1991, Glazier helped free Leslie Jean, convincing the courts that the police’s use of hypnosis during the interview process was inappropriate. Jean had always maintained his innocence. Each time Glazier looked for evidence, he was told it had been destroyed.
When he asked a friend to check the clerk’s office once more in 1998, staffers located a box of evidence shoved behind a shelf that had been cleaned out. The rape kit needed to prove Jean’s innocence was inside.
“There’s lots of issues out here,” Glazier said. “Lack of resources sometimes. Lack of time. In some cases, it’s lack of thought.”
A legislative committee that explored evidence preservation was sidelined in 2010 to shepherd reforms at the State Bureau of Investigation crime laboratory. The committee dissolved at the end of the 2011 session, and Glazier’s efforts to bring it back have failed.
“There’s still a whole lot of work” to be done, he said.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began vetting claims of innocence in 2006. As a state agency, the commission can search for and compel evidence in ways advocates and law school clinics cannot.
Its authority has paid off. In seven cases, commission investigators found evidence that other agencies had been told didn’t exist.
“Sometimes in these cases, it’s pure luck,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the inquiry commission.