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Broken police freezer means tainted evidence

November 28, 2000
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Broken police freezer means tainted evidence

(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) -- Biological evidence from 500 to 1,000 criminal cases was tainted in late September when an Oklahoma City police freezer broke down, raising the temperature of the frozen samples to room temperature over a nine-day period.

The evidence - blood, semen and saliva - stems from cases from 1984 to 1994, Police Chief M.T. Berry said on Nov. 21. All of the samples had been analyzed before the freezer broke, he said.

The tainted evidence could weaken the state's position on some appeals.

The greatest impact, however, could be in the initiation of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System's DNA testing program for indigent inmates. The program was approved in the last legislative session.

The Legislature appropriated $250,000 for the DNA program, which would help provide DNA testing for 10 inmates. The purpose of the program is to submit evidence from old cases for DNA testing in an attempt to exonerate convicts who may have been imprisoned wrongfully, said Jim Bednar, director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.

Bednar said the cases between 1984 and 1994 would be the ones they probably would consider.

"Certainly, in those earlier cases, they couldn't do the kind of testing we can do now to definitely exclude the person who was convicted of a crime," Bednar said. "That's what this is all about, being able to go back and find representative samples that have been properly kept so we can have a shot at this."

Police do not know how many cases will be affected, Berry said.

The samples are marked with laboratory codes and must be matched to specific case numbers. Police began compiling a list of cases shortly after discovering the problem but do not expect to finish the task for weeks.

Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy and Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson were notified of the situation shortly after police realized what had happened, Berry said.

The problem began Sept. 25 when the compressor in the freezer failed at 6:49 p.m., allowing the temperature inside to rise from minus 23 degrees Fahrenheit to room temperature. Police were not notified about the problem until about 3 p.m. Oct. 4.

The freezer was not in the police crime laboratory. Instead, it was kept in a large storage area lined with evidence boxes. Because no one visited the room daily, an alarm system was installed to detect any temperature changes inside the freezer.

Sonitrol of Oklahoma City monitored the alarm. If "Loop 15" - the computer code for the freezer - appeared on Sonitrol's computer screens, workers were instructed to contact the police immediately, using a contact list that also popped up on the screens.

When the code appeared Sept. 25, Sonitrol workers made "a couple" of calls to police pager numbers from the contact list, but the numbers on the list were no longer valid, said Capt. Byron Boshell, assistant lab director.

"There were also some numbers on that list that were correct," Boshell said. "Some of them were home numbers. Some of the numbers on the list were accurate and some were inaccurate."

Dee Yeary, vice president of Sonitrol, said workers phoned four or five of the numbers several times.

"They weren't good numbers," she said.

Periodically, Yeary said, police contacted the company to revise the contact list.

They were not asked to remove the incorrect numbers on the Sept. 25 phone list until Tuesday, she said.

"Somebody, something, somewhere fell through a crack," said Jack Dempsey Pointer, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

"God, I would hate for that to be my brother that fell through the crack, particularly if he is facing the death penalty."

Pointer said his organization will contact its members about the problems.

"From the defense attorney's standpoint or the appellate attorney's standpoint," he said, "it is extremely important that the integrity of this evidence be maintained.

"DNA evidence is the most compelling evidence that a defense attorney can put forward as new evidence."

Oklahoma County public defender Bob Ravitz said he did not know whether his office was working any cases from between 1984 and 1994.

"If there are any cases we are working on, we would intend to have the jury know about it, and if necessary, file a motion to dismiss," he said. "Obviously, if they were the most recent cases, then it would have a tremendous effect."

Prosecutors were reluctant to discuss the implications of losing the evidence.

"Basically, until we're provided those cases in Oklahoma County in which this potential contamination applies to, we don't have any comment," said John Jacobsen, first assistant Oklahoma County district attorney.

A spokesman for Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson was similarly cautious.

"It would be foolish of us to hazard a guess about what kind of impact, if any, this will have," said Gerald Adams, Edmondson's spokesman. "That will obviously have to be determined on a case-by-case basis."

(iSyndicate; The Daily Oklahoman; Nov. 22, 2000) Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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