Evidence rising of space crunch for crime items

DNA advances, laws force huge expansion of storage facilities

Police face growing burden

March 24, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

At a time when police departments - and defense attorneys - rely more and more heavily on crime scene DNA, law enforcement officials face a practical problem: what to do with the mounds of material piling up in police evidence rooms, from eating utensils and blood-stained carpets to tell-tale weapons with fingerprints.

"We just don't have the space down here to keep all that evidence," said Ed Koch, director of the Baltimore Police Department's crime lab. "It's a phenomenal amount of evidence."

And if proposed legislation passes in the General Assembly, police will have no choice but to make more room for evidence.

The pending bill would require all DNA evidence to be kept for the duration of the prison sentence of the person convicted of the crime, unless all agree it should be destroyed. Current law requires such evidence be kept for three years.

In jurisdictions where the annual homicide totals hover at one or two digits - such as Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties - keeping the evidence for homicide and rape cases is manageable. Both counties maintain all such evidence indefinitely, regardless of whether a suspect has been convicted, served prison time or died.

But in Baltimore, which recorded 259 killings in 2001, police are hard-pressed to find space for increasing evidence loads.

Last year alone, the department collected 400,000 pieces of evidence from 75,000 cases, an increase of almost 10 percent from a decade ago.

This year, Koch said, the caseload is expected to surge to at least 85,000 because of more aggressive policing, especially for drug violations. In addition, the city maintains evidence from pending cases and from 5,000 unsolved homicides and rapes that go back to the early 1900s.

The evidence cache in the basement of Baltimore's downtown police headquarters on Fayette Street has expanded in recent years to a room in another police building - as well as to a complex of outdoor trailers in an undisclosed, guarded location.

Even that may not be enough for long. Koch has identified 72,000 square feet of warehouse space, on Russell Street and in Locust Point, that would provide temporary space for expansion. They could be filled within 10 years, Koch said.

As of October, Baltimore police stopped destroying DNA evidence, expecting that cases may be reopened and the evidence needed, Koch said. That action anticipated a new state law, which took effect in January, allowing criminal cases to be reopened at any time based on new DNA evidence.

That means police are now holding onto more evidence than ever.

"We can't give money back to a victim's family if it has blood on it," Koch said, because of the DNA implications. "You also have stolen guns that are used in crimes you can't give back."

And the macabre flood would likely increase under the evidence-retention requirements now moving through the General Assembly.

The proposal recently was folded into a bill requiring anyone convicted of a violent crime to give a DNA sample to police. The state Senate approved the combined bill Thursday; the House of Delegates approved an earlier version of the bill but would still have to approve the revised version.

"The main thing we wanted was preservation of evidence, and this bill does that," said Del. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and a sponsor of an early version of the bill, which had as its main sponsor Del. Ann Marie Doory, another Baltimore Democrat

Sen. George Della, also a Baltimore Democrat and a sponsor of the Senate version, called it "a common-sense law that will bring the law into conformity with the technology we have today."

Advocates around the country have been pushing for DNA retention laws for years.

"Making sure the evidence is not destroyed is vital," said Huy Dao, assistant director of New York-based Innocence Project, which has helped to free about 50 prisoners across the country based on DNA evidence. "It's insanely frustrating to close a case because evidence was destroyed or lost."

In 1993, Kirk Bloodsworth, of Cambridge was cleared by DNA testing and released from prison after serving nine years - including seven on death row - in the killing of a 9-year-old Rosedale girl.

"I'm in favor of keeping evidence if it will exonerate somebody," Koch said. "We'll hold onto everything we need to."

And preservation of evidence can be important to prosecutors as well.

This month, a Pikesville man was retried on murder charges after his first conviction was thrown out on appeal. All the physical evidence was accidentally destroyed after Keith Brown's first trial in 1996 on charges of shooting his 19-year-old pregnant mistress.

In his first trial, Brown was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. In the retrial, Brown was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced last week to 35 years in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 13 years.

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