Law enforcers say that space and money crunches prevent them from keeping some criminal evidence.
By Susan Greene
The Denver Post
DENVER, Colo. — If criminal justice experts on a new state panel are able to overcome their differences, Colorado soon will have its first statewide policy on preserving DNA evidence.
"We have a responsibility here to seek out the best practices. … It's gonna be the same whether you're in La Junta or Berthoud or Denver," said Jeffrey Bayless, the retired Denver judge chairing Gov. Bill Ritter's DNA task force.
The group met for the first time Thursday.
At issue is Colorado's lack of regulation over DNA evidence, which has been key in solving thousands of cold cases and exonerating more than 200 wrongfully convicted prisoners nationwide.
Law enforcers here, as in many states, have no uniform policy for retaining DNA samples. Some store delicate traces of human biology in closets or desk drawers. And some destroy them, even while inmates are appealing their cases.
A state law says authorities have no duty to preserve biological evidence after criminal convictions.
"It is not a perfect system," Ritter, Denver's former district attorney, told the panel.
Law enforcers complained Thursday that space and money crunches prevent them from keeping some criminal evidence.
"We're concerned about storage, storage, storage and, not a surprise, legislators' unfunded mandates," said Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, who said his evidence freezers are full.
Oates and other police officials also spoke of their "anxiety" about lawmakers possibly creating a law that would sanction police and other evidence custodians who destroy DNA.
Former state public defender David Kaplan countered that "sanctions are still things we should have on the table."
The panel aims in the coming weeks to survey Colorado police and sheriff's departments about their evidence preservation practices.
Far more law enforcement officials than defense advocates sit on the panel that the governor has said he hopes will focus mostly on protecting the wrongfully convicted.
Of his 22 appointees, nine have worked in some capacity for prosecutors and eight have worked as police, sheriff's or state Bureau of Investigation employees.
Two represent the criminal defense community, and one is a victim advocate. Four sit in the state legislature.
"They may see the issue from different perspectives, but they share a common purpose in the desire to see justice administered fairly," said Ritter's spokesman, Evan Dreyer. "This isn't a prosecutor vs. defense issue."
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey criticized a federal innocence law that requires DNA evidence to be preserved in federal cases, saying those aren't usually crimes in which DNA is exchanged.
"If we're going to look to them as some kind of model, we're probably going to look back, not forward," he said.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation director Robert Cantwell asked a reporter not to print Morrissey's criticisms of the federal government.
The state - and Denver - both rely on funding from Washington.
Said Cantwell: "If you write about the feds being 10 years behind, you're only going to dredge up controversy for us."
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Colo. panel weighs DNA evidence oversight