A New Jersey Case Starkly Illustrates Problems Locating Evidence


Stephen Brooks has been seeking DNA testing for more than 20 years that he says would prove he did not commit a 1985 rape in New Jersey. Brooks’ Innocence Project attorneys are asking a state judge to order a thorough search for biological evidence in his case so that DNA testing can be conducted – a search that officials have thus far refused to conduct fully.

Brooks’ conviction was based largely on eyewitness identification, which has contributed to 75% of the 241 wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing. Brooks began seeking post-conviction DNA testing in 1988, when DNA evidence was first used in criminal cases. But authorities have failed to produce the evidence.  

Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin recently told The Star Ledger that biological evidence in Essex County, New Jersey, has not been properly stored and inventoried. “While evidence has been successfully retrieved in numerous cases throughout New Jersey, Essex County is proving to be in unique disarray,” she said.

In a Superior Court hearing later this month, Potkin will argue that officials have not conducted a full, proper search. Among the places where evidence might still be located is a locked vault the size of a room in the courthouse complex that is known to contain files from cases in the 1980s. Essex County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino argues that the vault has not been opened in years because no one has the combination.

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck told The Star Ledger: “The idea that individuals who have the combination have left the office, and people can’t open it, it’s ridiculous. That’s just crazy.”

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Brooks, whose Muslim name is Sharif Abdur-Raqeeb, recently told WNBC in New York that he is determined to find the evidence from his case because DNA testing will prove his innocence. “I didn’t do it, and I don’t think I should have to go through all of the stigma and everything else that’s attached to this thing for a crime I didn’t commit,” he said.

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Too many Innocence Project cases never reach DNA testing because biological evidence cannot be found. Twenty-two percent of cases closed by the Innocence Project since 2004 were closed because of lost or missing evidence. Often, DNA testing is the last resort for these prisoners, and the loss of evidence means never having a chance to prove their innocence, spending additional years in prison and possibly dying behind bars. In other cases, DNA evidence has at first been reported missing but later found after a more thorough search was conducted.

More than 30 states have passed statutes directing some aspect of the preservation of criminal evidence. New Jersey has no such law.

Find out about evidence preservation laws in your state with our interactive map


Read more about evidence preservation here


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