March 30, 2023
Over three months after the fire that ripped through a Red Hook warehouse, which stored decades-old New York City Police Department evidence, legal advocates are still seeking answers from the city about how it plans to address the impact it may have on pending criminal and exoneration cases.
Just eight barrels of evidence, which are currently "being reviewed and documented," survived the three-alarm blaze, according to the police department but the Legal Aid Society says it still does not know which of its past or ongoing cases have been affected by the fire.
Despite penning several letters, the organization said it has not been contacted by any city agencies regarding the destroyed evidence at warehouse at 700 Columbia St that stored both biological evidence and impounded vehicles.
The fire department determined last week that an electrical blowout in a conduit leading to an exit sign was the cause of the blaze.
The police department said after the Dec. 13 fire it would produce an itemized list of everything inside the Erie Basin warehouse as part of the investigation — and that the NYPD's "property specialists" would determine what had been damaged and what could be salvaged but that has yet to be published.
"Virtually all the evidence that was located within the Erie Basin Hanger was destroyed, with the exception of eight barrels, which are being reviewed and documented," a police spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the department is working closely with the District Attorney's offices, on a case-by-case basis, to verify the location and status of each specific evidence request.
'New Yorkers deserve answers'
Legal Aid said its request for a full list of evidence impacted by the fire and the names of the affected cases have gone unanswered for months and that it was appalled at the lack of urgency from City Hall, the NYPD and the City's District Attorneys to address the issue.
The organization is calling for a coordinated effort by the City to ensure that the accused and wrongfully convicted are not punished as a result of the fire and the subsequent fallout.
"Anything less would be an egregious miscarriage of justice," said Jenny S. Cheung, supervising attorney of the DNA Unit at The Legal Aid Society. "The New Yorkers impacted by the Brooklyn warehouse fire deserve answers regarding how City Hall is going to address the potential harm this event could pose to all cases."
"No one's personal freedom should be put at risk because of this incident," Chueng added.
In addition to requests for a detailed list of evidence that was affected in the fire, a Dec. 19 letter written by the Legal Aid society to authorities asked that they develop and publish a plan of action, in consultation with the City's conviction integrity units, to ensure that the accused and wrongfully convicted are not punished for the loss of evidence.
The Erie Basin warehouse, which sits on a small plot of land that juts out into the Gowanus Bay, also saw evidence destroyed or become inaccessible because of flood damages during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Rebecca Brown, director of policy with the Innocence Project, said it is "high time" for the state to establish rigorous legal standards for the retention of evidence, "which would also dictate remedies for people convicted of crimes when evidence is lost or destroyed."
"While New York State has a patchwork of policies seeking to guide the proper retention of biological evidence, stunningly the Empire State lags behind the rest of the nation in establishing the requirement that biological evidence – for the purposes of settling post-conviction claims of innocence and solving cold cases – be preserved by statute," said Brown.
The fire department and the mayor's office did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.