Lack of DNA storage space becomes challenge for law agencies

Hattiesburg American
BYLINE: JIMMIE E. GATES

Hattiesburg, MS

Local law enforcement agencies say they lack both the space and expertise to store DNA evidence that a new state law requires them to preserve.

The law that went into effect in March says the evidence from criminal cases must be kept - but doesn't say where.

Agencies had hoped the Mississippi Crime Lab would preserve and store DNA evidence for them after their cases were resolved.

But the lab also doesn't have the capacity either.

"Maybe in the future we can keep it when we get a (new, larger) place to store it," state Crime Lab Director Sam Howell said last week. "We don't have the storage space now."

Holmes County Sheriff Willie March, newly installed president of the Mississippi Sheriffs Association, said the Crime Lab is the best place to keep evidence no longer needed for active investigations.

"When we get a conviction, as far as we are concerned, the case is over. ... We are keeping it in our evidence room, but we don't know if it's the right place or temperature for preserving DNA evidence," March said.

Mississippi's 82 counties handle DNA evidence in different ways. Some may not collect DNA in all investigations because it is too costly.

The new law says that if DNA evidence is collected as part of the regular investigation into a criminal case, it is to be preserved. The evidence would be kept while the felony crime remains unresolved or the time the person convicted of the crime remains in custody.

There is no specific penalty outlined in the DNA bill for not preserving DNA evidence, but it's expected that sanctions could be sought in court on behalf of inmates.

"We had a briefing with the district attorney down here to try to understand the new law," Jefferson Davis County Sheriff Henry McCullum said. "We have to make sure we hold it in our possession for a period of time. The way it is looking now is everyone will be responsible for storing their own."

Jackson Crime Scene Investigator Charles Taylor said Friday he didn't even know about the law.

Taylor said Jackson has always sent certain items to the state Crime Lab for testing and receive them back once the testing is complete.

Will McIntosh, staff attorney for the Mississippi Innocence Project, said he can understand law enforcement's concern about DNA or other biological evidence piling up and becoming unmanageable, but he said it shouldn't be a worry because the law allows for a small sample to be kept instead of an entire item. He cited as an example keeping a fraction of a mattress with DNA evidence.

The bill also allows DNA evidence to be destroyed after a period of time if notice is given to all parties and they agree to it, McIntosh said.

A 23-member task force that helped craft the legislation said the current Crime Lab isn't equipped to handle the additional volume of evidence.

The task force report didn't mandate a centralized location for storing DNA evidence but suggested the state Crime Lab in Jackson as the most suitable location.

Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, who co-sponsored the legislation, said he has not heard anyone complain about the law. He said it is needed, but did not have an answer to solving the preservation issue.

"Other states are doing it, and I feel it something we need. In the long run it's going to help us all," Butler said.

McIntosh said the most important thing was to get a law passed that preserves DNA evidence and allow inmates to petition for testing.

"We are planning to file soon (on behalf of some inmates) under the law," McIntosh said of the national, state and New Orleans offices of the Innocence Project.

The 2008 releases, based on DNA tests, of inmates Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both charged with murder, spurred the legislation. Brewer had been on death row.

It was through the national Innocence Project that Brewer and Brooks had their convictions overturned. The Innocence Project often uses DNA to exonerate individuals wrongly convicted.

In 2005, an effort was made to reopen the case of Richard Chapman, who was 16 when he was charged with raping and robbing a Jackson woman. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1982 on the rape charge. He was sentenced to serve four years on the robbery charge.

Chapman said he was with his mother at the Mart 51 Shopping Center on Terry Road when the alleged rape occurred.

The New Orleans Innocence Project, which handled some Mississippi cases, tried to reopen Chapman's case and received a court order to have city, county and state officials search for evidence in Richard Chapman's case, but no evidence surfaced.

It was determined that biological samples and other evidence were destroyed by an April 19, 1985, court order.

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