Ga. police hunt lost evidence in '96 killing

Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The whereabouts of a missing weapon and other key evidence in a 1996 Fulton County homicide remained a mystery Wednesday.

A veteran Atlanta police detective said he doesn't know what happened to the gun, bullet and shell casing, fingerprints and other evidence from the December 1996 slaying in Buckhead of millionaire David Coffin Jr.

"Once it goes to the state crime lab, it is not my responsibility to keep it," Sgt. Rick Chambers testified Wednesday as defense attorneys fought to have the case dismissed. Chambers testified that he last saw the gun on Dec. 11, 1996, a day after Coffin's body was found, when he handed it to his partner on the case, detective Marchel Walker.

Walker, contacted Wednesday, said he also didn't know who last had the Beretta handgun police believe defendant Scott Davis, 41, used to fatally shoot Coffin at Coffin's Buckhead home.

"I don't have it," said Walker, reached at work Wednesday. "We turned it in to the GBI Crime Lab."

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said he doesn't know what happened to the evidence, but he plans to examine records today.

"Normally we return the evidence before trial, after testing --- particularly a case this old," Bankhead said. "We don't keep evidence."

Assistant District Attorney Sheila Ross told Fulton Superior Court Judge Tom Campbell that Atlanta police are scrambling to search about 44,000 weapons to find the missing weapon.

"They are continuing to look for it today, including the deputy police chief himself," she said.

Investigators allege that Davis, upset that his estranged wife struck up a romance with the wealthy victim, returned to the scene of the crime hours later and torched the body and house. The suspect, a former California gubernatorial candidate, was arrested in that state last November to face charges in Georgia.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard heralded the arrest by saying the weapon used in the slaying had been found.

Atlanta police typically keep evidence in the Property Room section, and items aren't supposed to be removed until someone sends a form to the detective or officer assigned to the case with the options to release the items back to their owners, destroy the items or hold them as evidence, Chambers testified.

The detective said he never authorized the destruction of any evidence in this case and he didn't find any documents or computer records showing that the evidence was destroyed.

"Unfortunately it happens a lot, and it happens in homicides that are old," Ross told the judge. "It's tragic, but it doesn't stop the case."

Atlanta Police spokeswoman Sylvia Abernathy said the department is looking for the evidence, which is probably not lost, but misplaced, she said. "It's not that it's gone, it's a matter of tracking," she said.

Abernathy said the department has restructured its system of filing and keeping track of evidence under Police Chief Richard Pennington, who took over as chief in 2003. She said the evidence in the Coffin case was collected before the new system was put in place.

Davis is also charged with burglarizing Coffin's house, taking sentimental items but leaving many other valuables, a couple of days before the murder. Prosecutors say Davis stole the victim's Porsche and shotgun, which were abandoned and set on fire just over the DeKalb County line. That evidence also is gone.

Chambers said the day the Porsche was found, he asked a DeKalb homicide detective to keep the evidence, but through the years didn't follow up to make sure it was preserved. Chambers called DeKalb police last spring to check on the evidence.

"They said it had been destroyed," Chambers testified.

He said no one from DeKalb had checked with him first.

Public information officers for DeKalb's police and fire departments did not return messages seeking comment.

The victim's father, David Coffin Sr., attended the hearing, where the judge announced he will wait to decide whether to toss out the case.

"All I'm looking for is justice, period," the father said outside the courtroom. "That's it." 
Photo: Scott Davis, 41, is accused of killing millionaire David Coffin in 1996 and setting his house afire.
April 13, 2006

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