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Ensuring justice by securing the evidence

The Denver Post
BYLINE: Susan Greene Denver Post Columnist

Denver, CO

Clarence Moses-EL may spend the rest of his life behind bars as the face of a national problem that too long has gone ignored.

From prison, the Colorado inmate won a judge's permission to test the DNA evidence from a rape for which he says he was wrongfully convicted. He managed to raise $1,000 from fellow inmates to pay for the lab work. Denver police wrapped up the evidence and labeled the box, "DO NOT DESTROY."

Nevertheless, it got tossed in the trash.

Nearly 25 years since the dawn of the DNA era, there still are no federal safeguards preventing local authorities from destroying traces of human biology that can free the wrongfully convicted or help crack unsolved cases. Nobody on a national level has taken a meaningful look at preservation.

Until now.

The Obama administration this month is launching a federal working group to recommend standards for preserving forensic evidence.

"The aim is national guidelines that can be adopted by law enforcement, courts and anyone else who's responsible for storing evidence, especially long term," says Mark Stolorow of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

A Denver Post series, "Trashing the Truth," found authorities across the country have lost or destroyed tens of thousands of DNA samples since genetic fingerprinting revolutionized crime solving.

In a nation where TV shows glorify DNA forensics, all too many real-life evidence rooms are mismanaged and under-funded, routinely failing to track valuable items from crime scenes.

Prosecutors and police nationwide have cited costly storage space among reasons to justify tossing DNA samples, including rape kits.

Taxpayers in Colorado Springs paid $1.24 million to expand evidence rooms in 2002. But the space was cramped with unorganized piles within three years. So the Police Department trashed evidence from 500 cases, including several cold-case sex crimes and suspected murders.

One of those cases was the disappearance of Gloria Berreth in 1994. Police didn't tell her family they had burned the evidence.

Her daughter learned about the purge months ago from an archived version of a 2-year-old article. She was stunned that police let her mom's case go so cold.

Funded for at least a year by the U.S. Justice Department, the new federal working group will include scientists, legal experts and evidence custodians who have yet to be appointed. They'll recommend protocols on what types of evidence should be preserved, how and for how long, Stolorow says. They're likely ultimately to ask Congress for funding.

The Bush administration killed previous attempts to address the problem. "States have been needing guidance in this area for quite some time. This is a critical step forward," says Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for the New York-based Innocence Project.

Colorado implemented some reforms in 2008. But those efforts and the federal working group come too late for Moses-EL, 55, who remains locked up serving a 48-year sentence. The DNA revolution passed him by when Denver took the biological proof of his guilt or innocence and threw it in a Dumpster.

"Someone needs to set this straight," he has written from the Kit Carson Correctional Facility in Burlington. "If not for me, then for the next guy."

Susan Greene writes Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 303-954-1989 or
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