Judge says police must look for DNA or be fined

October 17, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

A Baltimore judge has threatened to fine city police and prosecutors for every day they do not comply with her order to search storage facilities for evidence from a 1975 rape case and report back on the results.

In January, based on a ruling from the state's second-highest court, Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard ordered the police department to see if any material remained from John Williams Simms' 1977 trial that could undergo DNA testing, which did not exist at the time of the crime.

Heard gave prosecutors and police a 90-day deadline for a written report on the efforts. Nearly 10 months later, no report has been made. A representative from the police department did not attend a hearing Thursday.

Assistant State's Attorney Joakim Tan told Heard that the police department does not yet have funding to pay a contractor to comb through an off-site storage facility containing crime scene evidence damaged during Tropical Storm Isabel.

In a similar case, the state's highest court ruled last year that a search of police department computer records and paperwork for old DNA evidence in a murder case wasn't good enough, ordering the state to check "any place the evidence could reasonably be found."

Innocence Project director Michele Nethercott is representing Simms, a former state prison guard and convicted murderer. She told Heard that the city has "ignored" every court order requiring them to "clean up" the evidence storage facility.

Heard said she had "a remedy," ordering Tan and police officials to appear in court Feb. 6 to explain why they should not be held in contempt. Tan pointed out that he could not force the city or police department to provide money for the inventory.

"I understand the city is tying your hands, but I'm not going to disobey an order" from the appellate courts, she said, adding that she also would not tolerate further delays.

"I'm not having it," she said.

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Baltimore police, declined to comment because the court proceedings are continuing.

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