What Not to Purge: Evidence That Could Clear Someone’s Name

in Criminal Defense, on

The justice system in North Carolina has not been able to keep up with technology. Budget and staff cuts have made it harder if not impossible to preserve evidence from decided criminal cases. Legislative committees have had more pressing issues to deal with, like fixing the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab.

Whatever the reason, evidence that could clear the names of people who have been sitting in jail for years has gone missing, been tossed or been relegated to the far reaches of a storage facility where it awaits cataloging. Two organizations in the state are trying to rectify the problem, but the going is tough.

The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence reports receiving 45 applications for assistance from inmates who say that DNA testing would exonerate them. The problem is that the evidence just isn’t there anymore. In four cases, for example, center personnel were able to determine that the evidence had been lost or destroyed in spite of state law mandating its retention.

The state adopted the laws in 2001 in an effort to help law enforcement agencies manage their evidence inventories more efficiently. The laws govern which evidence is preserved and how long it is to be preserved once a case is “solved.” And, the laws apply to evidence collected from crimes that occurred before 2001. While the laws provide clear instructions, the General Assembly did not add personnel to help local law enforcement agencies sort through their backlogs or, in at least one case, even to computerize their records.

One ray of hope is offered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission is a state agency and has the authority to compel local agencies to produce evidence — that’s a lot more clout than advocacy organizations like the Center on Actual Innocence has. Since 2006, the commission has been able to obtain evidence that had eluded others in seven cases.

Source: News & Observer, “Discarded evidence costs some NC inmates a chance at freedom,” Mandy Locke, March 16, 2013

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