Advances in forensic science have made physical evidence increasingly crucial in criminal justice – but the practice of preserving and maintaining that evidence is often underfunded, poorly managed, or just plain sloppy
For more than a decade, lawyers for death row inmate Hank Skinner fought prosecutors – in Gray County and the attorney general’s office – for the right to DNA-test certain items of evidence. Skinner was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1993 murder of his girlfriend Twila Busby and her two grown sons in the home they shared in the Panhandle town of Pampa. The crime scene was bloody – Busby was bludgeoned, her sons repeatedly stabbed – and while some DNA tests have been performed, there was plenty of evidence that hadn’t been tested, including a sweat- and blood-stained windbreaker. The jacket is crucial, attorney Rob Owen has argued; found next to Busby’s body, the tan snap-front jacket resembled one regularly worn by Busby’s now-deceased uncle Robert Donnell, who the defense claims was obsessed with Busby and may have been her real killer. In short, testing the jacket might help prove Skinner’s innocence – or confirm his guilt.
On June 1, 2012, the state finally dropped its opposition to the testing. Just two weeks later, Owen was again frustrated when the AG’s Office informed him that the windbreaker was missing. “According to the state, every other piece of evidence in this case has been preserved,” he said at the time. “It is difficult to understand how the state has managed to maintain custody of items as small as fingernail clippings, while apparently losing something as large as a man’s windbreaker.”
No one seems to know when or how the jacket went missing. The Pampa Police Department, which investigated the murders, originally held all of the evidence related to the case. When the time came for Skinner to be tried, the evidence was handed over to Gray County. Some time after Skinner was tried, the jacket simply disappeared – and no one knows where it went, said Gary Noblett, a 41-year veteran of the Pampa PD and custodian of its evidence and property storage. Over the years, he said, a number of law enforcement types have called looking for it – including officials with the AG’s Office. “As far as I know of, no one’s ever been able to find that thing,” he said. Skinner remains on death row as DNA testing on other items of evidence continues.
Skinner’s case is not unusual. Unfortunately, missing evidence is “way more common than you’d think,” says evidence expert John Vasquez. Vasquez worked in property and evidence management for 25 years, first for the military and then for the Fort Worth and Wichita Falls PDs, before starting his own evidence-control consulting business. More often than not, the evidence hasn’t actually been removed from a law enforcement storage facility – though scandals involving stolen evidence are unnervingly common, as officials with the Houston PD can readily affirm. Instead, says Vasquez, missing evidence is generally misplaced evidence – logged into one area of a storage facility and then moved without anyone noting the new location, or overlooked when a department’s evidence-tracking system is upgraded.
That is, perhaps, the good news – though having something and not knowing where it is, or not being able to find it, is hardly less damaging than discovering that an item has been stolen or destroyed outright.
Indeed, an investigation by the Chronicle into the state of criminal evidence storage and retention in Texas reflects that while state laws firmly mandate the preservation and maintenance of evidence that may contain biological material, there is little consistency in how these laws are actually carried out, including wide disparities in how evidence is packaged and maintained. Legislation enacted in 2011 extended by decades the length of time that items of evidence that may contain DNA must be stored, and directed a group of stakeholders to come up with guidelines and best practices for the handling and storage of that evidence. However, many law enforcement officials see the legislation as merely a good first step, and moreover, an unfunded mandate.
A key piece of evidence that went missing in Hank Skinner’s murder case.
by Gray County Evidence Photo
Property and evidence technicians and managers are often poorly paid and receive very little training, if any, on how to do their jobs, says Vasquez. That’s a combination that can quickly lead to scandal for a police department working within a criminal justice system that increasingly relies on science to make evidence meaningful.
As forensic science evolves and DNA testing becomes more precise, the amount of material being collected has also increased, thrusting the maintenance of evidence – once considered the “red-headed stepchild of law enforcement,” says Vasquez – into the legal spotlight, and expanding the need for skilled inventory management. “We are somewhat overrun by stuff,” says Belton Police Chief Gene Ellis, a representative of the Texas Police Chiefs Association who was among a group of stakeholders involved last year in the creation of best practices for evidence preservation in Texas. DNA testing “has enhanced so that we’re able to process things and come up with DNA evidence where we couldn’t before.”
Without sufficient understanding of the critical role that the proper preservation of evidence now plays – not only in convicting the guilty, but also in freeing the innocent – the system is in serious trouble, officials warn. “Evidence has been one of the biggest issues we’re dealing with in law enforcement,” says Tony Widner, chief of the Graham PD, a small department south of Wichita Falls. “You’re not just talking about the credibility of the department; you’re talking about a victim seeing justice.”
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