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Drugs burned before trials

Pittsburgh Pose-Gazette,
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BYLINE: Sadie Gurman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh, PA

Communication gaps between property rooms, police and DA jeopardize cases

Twice last week Pittsburgh narcotics detectives went to the bureau's property room to retrieve drug evidence in pending cases, one a major heroin bust.

Twice they left empty handed because the evidence had been prematurely destroyed due to oversights by police and the Allegheny County district attorney's office.

The mistakes have led local prosecutors to back off of one of the cases and could present challenges for federal prosecutors, who are pursuing the other.

The snafus, the first of their kind in recent memory, also have exposed communication gaps that officials have pledged to fix.

Detectives last week learned that about 14,000 stamp bags of heroin worth more than $107,000 on the street had been burned after prosecutors filed notice not to prosecute the case at the state level. Prosecutors were removing themselves from the case because it had been taken over by the U.S. attorney's office.

The property room periodically reviews cases to determine whether evidence can be destroyed.

The heroin case appeared to be closed to Sgt. Lynn DeVault, who supervises the property room, and to the district attorney's office, which reviewed and authorized her request that the evidence be destroyed.

Although state charges were not being pursued, the defendant, Tiona Jones, 31, of Beechview, was federally indicted on charges that included drug possession with intent to deliver and firearms violations.

Up until these errors came to light, there was no mechanism in place to ensure that evidence in cases not prosecuted at the state level is preserved if a case moves to federal court.

"There are a number of issues we're trying to address, and that was one of them," said Assistant police Chief Regina McDonald, whose office oversees the property room.

Sgt. DeVault declined to comment. U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton's office and federal public defender Lisa Freeland also declined to comment.

Prosecutors don't necessarily need drug evidence to prevail in a drug case, legal experts say, but problems can arise for them without it. They must be able to explain how the evidence was handled and the circumstances of its destruction, and generally must rely on documentation or testimony from the county's crime lab and technicians.

"It doesn't shoot the case dead, but it introduces a series of problems for the prosecutors and opportunities for the defense," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris.

In the other drug case, the district attorney's office decided last week to discontinue prosecution because the evidence -- about 6 grams of crack cocaine -- had been destroyed.

"It was determined that the evidence in the case has been destroyed and the lab scientist that tested the drugs no longer works at the crime lab," the district attorney's office wrote in its Dec. 14 petition to discontinue the case.

The defendant, Aaron Jones, was arrested in September 2005 after narcotics detectives said they saw him throw a bag of cocaine from the porch of a suspected crack house. A non-jury trial was scheduled.

But in February, Sgt. DeVault in the property room sent a memo to Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan requesting "permission to obtain a court order for the destruction of confiscated narcotic evidence from 2005." Among the drugs to be destroyed was evidence for the Aaron Jones case and hundreds of others.

"The evidence was obtained by the Pittsburgh police and all cases have been closed and no appeals appear to have been filed," she wrote, adding that crime lab reports were available on the cases.

Common Pleas Judge Randal B. Todd granted the court order for all the requested cases.

Mr. Swan said the property room requested the Aaron Jones evidence destroyed because it had been five years since his arrest, which is the district attorney's recommended practices for how long evidence should be maintained. He said the district attorney's office reviews cases eligible for evidence destruction by looking at computer court records to verify their status, but a high volume of cases means it can't study each in depth.

Computerized records, for example, don't show that the Tiona Jones case is still active federally, although paper documents kept in a file with the clerk of courts indicate she was indicted in September 2009.

"We need to tighten up communications between ourselves and as well as with the departments," Mr. Swan said.

Prosecutors have commonly relied on police departments to make sure a case was closed before they sought to have the evidence destroyed. Since the errors, Mr. Swan said the district attorney's office has urged the police bureau to have its officers notify the property room when their cases are closed and to have the property room check with investigating officers before it seeks to have evidence discarded.

If appeals exist in cases, the district attorney's office will now notify a property room not to get rid of the evidence.

Also starting next year, when state cases go federal, such as the Tiona Jones case, the district attorney's office will send a form letter to the police agency informing them as such. Police must sign the letter as proof that they have made note of the federal case.

Sadie Gurman: or 412-263-1878.

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