News 10.17.07

Dispatch from the field: Colorado sets an example by exploring evidence reforms


BY: Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project Policy Analyst

(NOTE:

This is the first post in a new Innocence Blog feature called "Dispatches from the Field." These posts will bring you a personal perspective from Innocence Project attorneys, policy analysts, exonerees and others as breaking news and major events happen. Thanks for reading.

)

I’m writing from Denver, Colorado, where I will be testifying later today before the state’s new Task Force on the Preservation of Evidence.  I’m here to educate the panel members about the importance of preserving biological evidence for both solving criminal cases and protecting the innocent, and to help them understand how law enforcement agencies can – simply yet effectively – collect, preserve and catalogue crime scene evidence. The existence of this panel, which brings together a cross-section of state criminal justice experts, represents significant momentum to improve the quality of justice in Colorado. We at the Innocence Project are happy to be part of this reform process.

After a groundbreaking

four-part series this summer in the Denver Post

highlighted shortcomings in the state’s evidence preservation policies, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter formed this task force to review state policies and make recommendations for reform. Colorado’s current preservation law fails to require the automatic retention of biological evidence, and only mandates the preservation of biological evidence when a court has granted a hearing pursuant to its post-conviction DNA testing law.  The law explicitly states that there is neither “a duty to preserve biological evidence” nor liability on the part of those who fail to preserve evidence. There is no statewide inventory or catalogue system, making it extremely difficult in some cases to find evidence attached to both innocence claims and old or “cold” cases. There have been reports of evidence room purges throughout the state, including in Denver and Colorado Springs. It is time for a statewide system to be put in place, and this panel is the right way to start. In the DNA age, states have a duty to handle biological evidence with an eye to its ability to factor into criminal investigations and legal appeals in the future.

As I will tell the panel today, none of the 208 people exonerated by DNA testing would be where they are today if evidence in their cases had been lost or destroyed. Through DNA exonerations, we have seen the need for critical reforms – in areas like identification and forensic policy – and we have also seen the incredible power of this technology to solve old crimes – exonerating the innocent and identifying the guilty. Some states have been slow to adapt policies to the new technology, and far too many law enforcement departments around the country continue to operate with no formal system for cataloguing and preserving  evidence. When the evidence room gets full, older items are often thrown out to make more room or lost in long-term storage. In the interest of justice, that simply can’t continue to happen

In 2004, Congress passed the Justice for All Act, recognizing the importance of preservation by offering millions of dollars in criminal justice funding to states that follow certain preservation practices.

An article last week in USA Today

revealed that much of this money is going unspent because states have either not applied for these funds or have been rejected due to their preservation policies. We expect to see more federal funding programs tied to proper evidence handling in the near future – giving states even more incentive to act now in updating these policies.

It is inspiring to see Colorado taking steps to improve evidence preservation and it is time for more states to follow this example. Interest from the press and the public sparked this momentum in Colorado and you can make this happen in your state.

Click here to reach out to the media, elected officials

or your

local law enforcement agency

to tell them you’re concerned about evidence preservation in your state.

The Innocence Project Policy Department is also happy to provide resources to help law enforcement agencies review and reform evidence handling practices. Please contact us at

info@innocenceproject.org

for more information.

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