The Post-Crescent, postcrescent.com
BYLINE: Jessie Van Berkel, Post-Crescent staff writer
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Officer Carrie Peters collects and logs evidence in the evidence staging room Aug. 2 at the Appleton Police Department.
/ Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent
In a freezer at the Appleton Police Department there’s a partially eaten pizza no one will ever finish.
Police don’t know what could be important at a crime scene — or when an attorney will want to review evidence from a closed case. So, blood-splattered chairs, stray hairs and pizzas stack up in department storage rooms and can linger there for years, decades or even a life sentence.
Paying evidence technicians to maintain the items and making space to store the goods can be expensive.
It costs Appleton police more than $240,000 a year to keep evidence: $220,070 for the salaries and benefits of one part-time and two full-time employees who collect, maintain and catalog the pieces and another $21,800 for supplies and equipment, Sgt. Pat DeWall said.
The department is home to 32,070 pieces of evidence and property — an inventory that has more than quadrupled since 2004, according to department data.
Why the jump? Well, a bit more stuff is coming in — Appleton logged 7,271 new items into storage last year compared to 2004’s total of 6,869. Advances in DNA technology mean there’s more potential evidence out there, Appleton evidence technician Sgt. Matthew Peeters said. There’s also more electronic evidence because police and police cars are regularly outfitted with cameras, he said.
But most of the bump in inventory is a result of legal requirements that force police to hang on to DNA evidence for much longer, Peeters said.
Items like drugs or guns can be disposed of fairly easily — to destroy logged evidence, technicians must wait 90 days post-conviction for misdemeanors and for felonies, they must receive the criminal’s permission before they can destroy the goods, Peeters said.
But biological evidence, well, that stuff’s like clutter or fat … easy to accumulate, tough to get rid of.
Police must hang on to DNA evidence until the criminal is off probation, which can be decades. The only way they can get rid of items is if the district attorney agrees the evidence can be destroyed and sends a notification to the defense attorney and criminal and they don’t object within 90 days, according to a state statute passed in 2005.
In small departments like New London, storing the DNA evidence is no easy task.
In 2007, Chad Magolski, 36, of New London, stabbed his 77-year-old neighbor James Park 11 times and left him to die under Park’s kitchen table. In March, Magolski was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The crime left the police department with a living room and dining room’s worth of evidence — the table, chairs, a buffet — that they can’t destroy until Magolski dies or the criminal gives them permission, said Lt. Christopher Gregory, evidence custodian at New London.
In about five years the department will approach the defense attorneys and prosecutors and ask about destroying some of the evidence that was never used in court, he said.
“We would say, ‘We would like to get rid of this evidence, we don’t believe this is anything that would exculpate this party,” Gregory said.
“Old cases is kind of a low priory so they might not get an answer (from the district attorney) real fast,” criminal defense attorney Len Kachinsky said.
Then the defense attorney could send a letter saying they intend to retest evidence in the future.
Even evidence that was never used in court could end up sitting in New London’s storage for the next 50 years, Gregory said.
More space and time
Departments have expanded their storage space to fit all the items.
New London is adding an attic-like space to their evidence room, Gregory said. Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department has added two new rooms and bought another freezer in the past year to fit the DNA and drugs that are funneling in, Capt. Don Conat said.
The evidence storage space of the Appleton Police Department, which was redone in 2008 along with the building, contains expandable shelves, a gun locker and drug room that exudes the scent of marijuana. There are three freezers, two refrigerators, a couple bulk storage spaces and a garage where cars can be kept before they’re moved to an off-site impound lot. There are more than a dozen cars stored at the lot, Peeters said.
When an Appleton officer collects something from a crime scene, they bring it to the basement of the police department and fill out some paperwork, wrap the item in paper, or stick it in an envelope or bag, then put it in a temporary storage locker.
Evidence technicians access the lockers from a locked room and shelve the goods.
When an item changes hands, from the officer, to the technician, to the crime lab or back to storage, it should be documented, Peeters said. Several checks are held each year — some random, others planned — when a supervisor will ask for some piece of evidence.
The three employees must be able to easily find it and show it hasn’t been tampered with — the plastic is sealed with a heat compress or the package bears a signature across the tape used to wrap it, Peeters said.
“Our record keeping has to be meticulous,” he said.
DNA evidence should be stored in a cold environment, according to the National Institute of Justice.
While crime-scene pizza can easily slide into a freezer, chunks of a mattress or car are less easy to maintain.
Neenah police have two cars they must hold on to for two more decades that need to be kept in air-conditioned spots, Neenah Investigator Mike Blank said.
“DNA deteriorates though heat. … We do our best to prevent that but we can only do what’s feasible,” Blank said.
— Jessie Van Berkel: 920-993-1000, ext. 426, or
The Appleton Police Department evidence storage area.
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