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Federal drug case in trouble after evidence is burned

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
BYLINE: Sadie Gurman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Link to Article

Pittsburgh, PA

A federal public defender will ask a judge to dismiss a major drug case against a Beechview woman after evidence was mistakenly destroyed while the case remained open.

Senior U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond gave Marketa Sims two weeks to file motions in the case of Tiona Jones, 31, who was federally indicted in 2009 on charges including drug possession with intent to deliver and firearms charges. City detectives arrested her in May 2008.

The case was jeopardized when the police bureau's property room requested -- and the district attorney's office approved -- the burning of more than 14,000 stamp bags of heroin. Local prosecutors had removed themselves from the case because it had been taken over by the U.S. attorney's office, making it appear that the case had been closed.

At issue during a Tuesday evidence suppression hearing was whether the detectives plainly saw bricks of heroin bulging from Ms. Jones' open change purse during a traffic stop or whether the purse was zipped shut and the drugs discovered during an improper search.

Pictures admitted as evidence show the purse open and the heroin visible, but Ms. Jones testified that it wasn't arranged like that when she was stopped.

"If we had the change purse and the heroin, we could testify that it could be closed," Ms. Sims told the judge. "We don't even have a picture indicating how the change purse was found."

Ms. Sims also said she wants more information about how the evidence was destroyed when "the district attorney's office knew full well the case had been subjected for federal prosecution," and asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Picking to document her efforts to ensure the evidence was preserved when the case moved to the federal level.

A spokesman for the office would not say whether federal prosecutors' protocols had been changed in light of the mishap.

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