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Evidence in criminal cases requires extra care

News Herald,
BYLINE: CHRIS SEGAL / News Herald Writer
Link to Article

Bay County, FL

2011-08-13_Evidence in criminal cases requires extra care_01
Bay County Sheriff's Office Crime Scene Investigator Chris Reynolds takes fingerprints from a piece of paper in Lynn Haven Wednesday. TERRY BARNER / The News Herald

PANAMA CITY — There’s a secret basement downtown full of drugs and murder weapons. It’s down a flight of stairs, past an old, out-of-place painting of a landscape and through a door with two locks that no one person holds both keys to.

The fridge in the back of the room keeps the DNA fresh. Dozens of pistols and rifles, a bow, some arrows and at least one samurai sword are there.

It’s the clerk of court’s evidence vault, and it’s the last stop before destruction for the evidence used to convict criminals in Bay County.

“There’s more paperwork than anything else,” Donna Fowler said. “Really it’s just a basement with a bunch of junk.”

Fowler is the criminal department manager at the clerk’s office. She doesn’t go into the basement. It’s kind of scary and the drugs languishing there contribute to a funky odor.

In Lynn Haven, the evidence locker at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office is arranged by crimes. Evidence over here pertains to violent crimes. Those stereos and video games are burglaries or robberies.

The back of the room smells considerably fresher than the clerk’s vault. This must be evidence from drug cases – yep, there’s a pound of dope right there. Several pounds maybe. That sack could definitely hold several pounds. There’s a whole marijuana plant actually.

In many Bay County criminal cases, this is the first stop for the evidence that will be used in prosecutions. Roughly 13,000 pieces of evidence in more than 35,000 criminal cases pass through this room each year, said Investigator Shannon Mitchell, one of four crime scene investigators and technicians who work back here.

When deputies collect evidence, they bring it here, where it is logged into the system, packaged, sealed and labeled. There are rows and rows of rifles, dozens of pistols hanging from the walls. Some of this stuff, like the muzzle-loader rifle there, looks like it’s been here since the civil war.

BSCO’s locker has a fridge that contains maggots from a death case. There’s a new machine that allows the CSIs to use superglue to recover fingerprints. It’s actually just like those detective shows, but slower, Mitchell said. There’s a machine for bloody clothes, which need to dry before they can be packaged and sealed.

Evidence of a crime must be saved for years. A case doesn’t end just because someone’s been convicted of a crime. The evidence can’t just be tossed out when someone’s locked up. The appeals process can last for years, especially in murder cases. A conviction overturned may call for a new trial, so there’s always the off-chance that evidence will be needed again.

“These guys are really awesome at what they do,” Sheriff Frank McKeithen said during a brief visit to the lab. “Getting it is just a part of it. It’s what they do with it that counts.”

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