Missing evidence is proof positive of thwarted justice

Foul-ups have freed convicted criminals

April 13, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

There are days in Baltimore Circuit Judge William D. Quarles' courtroom when a police officer takes the witness stand, unseals a supposedly safeguarded envelope of evidence to present to the jury -- and finds material for a different case.

It happens only occasionally, Quarles and other judges say -- but lost, misplaced or destroyed evidence is a serious concern among court officials because it undermines the quality of justice in this city under siege for its persistently high violent crime rate.

"It raises troubling concerns about the inability to order and make some sense of this mass of criminal prosecutions," said Quarles.

He recently presided over a high-profile murder case plagued with evidence problems that ended in an acquittal. The detective mistakenly ordered the destruction of shell casings found at the scene, the original taped statement of a defendant and the victim's bloody clothing.

A recent review by The Sun found six court cases in the past two years where police lost, misplaced or destroyed evidence. Judges said they have seen other foul-ups, though no one tracks the total number.

In the cases reviewed by The Sun, two were dismissed by judges. Two others ended in plea bargains with light prison time. One resulted in a conviction and another in an acquittal.

Part of the problem, officials say, is the flood of cases swamping the criminal justice system.

Police have to keep track of about 55,000 pieces of evidence at any one time, from guns to fingerprints cards to refrigerators, in police headquarters.

About three times a year, they clear out the gun section and send thousands of weapons to be melted down at Bethlehem Steel. They also hold two or three auctions a year to create more room.

Quarles said the volume of cases also causes a "numbness" in the criminal justice system "that translates into lost evidence and perhaps less than full-throttle efforts throughout the entire system."

Police say procedures were changed in the homicide unit in February so that two supervisors must review evidence forms before items are destroyed. In addition, the evidence unit is expected to be expanded so that officers may not have to routinely purge material to clear room in the 30,000-square- foot area in the basement of police headquarters.

But police spokesman Maj. Michael Bass said mistakes will be made.

"I am not sure that there is a systems issue here as much as there is pure, simple, unintended, human error," Bass said.

"I'm not sure how you can totally prevent something like that."

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said problems with evidence handling have "been obvious for a long time." When prosecutors find out evidence is destroyed or missing, it makes proving a case that much harder, she said.

"You got a report that says ... `This was recovered,' but then it's not there," Jessamy said. "It's not easy."

She said that she has met with top police commanders to talk about improving procedures.

"I feel very optimistic that we are going to have change," she said.

"We just have to look at it and work out something that is to the best interests of everybody."

Baltimore's Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said that maintaining evidence is vital to ensure that justice is fairly served. She said she has presided over criminal cases where evidence had vanished, but said such foul-ups "are certainly not the norm."

"Certainly more care should be taken so that it doesn't happen," Heller said.

The destruction or loss of evidence hurts both sides in a criminal case: It presents complicated legal issues, it can damage a prosecutor's chance of winning a conviction and it undercuts a defense lawyer's ability to question police findings.

The attempted-murder case against Michael Ruben, 36, illustrates the problems.

Ruben, a convicted burglar and drug user, was charged with robbing and shooting at the owners of a Woodland Avenue liquor store in October 1997. The shots missed the owners and struck a vehicle. Police said they found two 16-gauge shotgun shells at the scene and Ruben was carrying a 16-gauge shotgun when he was arrested.

Prosecutors planned to argue that the two matched, court records show.

But police destroyed the shells.

In court a year later, Ruben's lawyer, H. Gregory Martin, argued that the case should be dismissed because he did not have the chance to examine the shells. He said one police analysis indicated that the shells recovered at the scene were not 16-gauge, but 12-gauge, and he planned to argue that they could not have been fired from the gun found on Ruben.

Circuit Judge John N. Prevas demanded to know exactly how and why the shells were destroyed. Officer Sean Mayo testified that the shells were mislabeled and he mistakenly approved them for destruction two months before.

"That's very sloppy police work," said the judge, furious.

"I don't understand how you can have such a cavalier attitude towards the defendant's rights, but fish rot from the head down."

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