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Missing evidence stirs accusations

My FOX Tampa Bay,
BYLINE: Doug Smith, FOX 13 Investigative reporter
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Manatee County, FL

BRADENTON - The news came as a shock and embarrassment: the Manatee County Sheriff's Office had lost or destroyed critical evidence that could impact thousands of cases. As a result, criminals could go free and innocent people remain locked up.

For the first time, an employee with first-hand knowledge of what was happening behind the scenes in the property and evidence vault is speaking out.

"It was shredded. All of my records that would tell you or show you what was disposed of, where it was disposed of, how it was disposed of and if there was any witnesses who was present. The paperwork should have been kept," said Jean Dixon, former Director of Property and Evidence in Manatee County.

Criminal defense attorneys agree with the former property director.

"It's better to see, than be told. This is a CSI world," says Sarasota criminal defense lawyer Andrea Mogensen, referencing the television shows that feature cops using high-tech equipment to solve the mystery murder of the hour. "Juries are looking for physical evidence, the proof positive."

There's usually no argument among lawyers on this point: physical evidence is the best evidence to put before a jury.

But in Manatee County, some evidence is missing. Hundreds of pounds of marijuana, two kilos of cocaine, as well as DNA evidence that lawyers for the Florida Innocence Project argue would clear Derrick Williams of a rape conviction.

Williams was convicted of rape in 1993 and has been in prison ever since. The Florida Innocence Projects filed a motion in August 2010 to vacate his two consecutive life sentences.

The Manatee County Sheriff's office admits it lost or destroyed the evidence in these cases and concedes there could be a whole lot more.

"Oh, it's a mess. Yeah, it's a mess and it has been a mess. It's not really a mess anymore, but has been yeah." Said Manatee County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Dave Bristow, in September 2010.

"I took that personal," says Dixon.

Dixon worked for the county for 26 years, made a training video and says she received excellent reviews before retiring in March of 2010 for medical reasons. Dixon believes the sheriff's office is trying to make her the scapegoat, so she's talking for the first time to FOX13 Investigative reporter Doug Smith.

"I was very mad. If it was a bad place, why did we pass on every accreditation inspection?" she asks.

During her last inspection in 2009, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement, CALEA, which Manatee County Sheriffs Office is a member of, stated:

"Throughout these relocation efforts, the evidence custodian has maintained control of each facility regarding the security measures and the necessary audits. Security to the current location was found to be excellent, as the area is accessible only by a key operated elevator. A sampling of items revealed an organized filing system and cross-referencing system was in place to assist in locating evidence. A procedure for referencing system was in place to assist in locating evidence. A procedure for accepting evidence was clearly defined and demonstrated. Both unannounced inspections and annual audits were found to be satisfactory regarding compliance."

The purpose of CALEA's Accreditation program, according to their website, is to improve the delivery of public safety services, primarily by:

maintaining a body of standards, developed by public safety practitioners,covering a wide range of up-to-date public safety initiatives;

establishing and administering an accreditation process;

and recognizing professional excellence.

Dixon says it was difficult managing evidence kept at multiple locations, and in 2003, a water leak contaminated some evidence, creating mold. That evidence, stored in a vault, was incinerated.

Dixon says she was out sick at the time, but says everything was cataloged correctly. She went out sick again in November of 2009, and says when she returned, the new property supervisor got rid of everything, including all of her notes and records dating back to the 80s, as part of an effort to modernize.

So what does the Sheriffs Office have to say about Jean Dixon's claims? Nobody at the Manatee Sheriff's Office wanted to talk about it and declined our repeated requests for an interview.

The Sheriff's Office says they were advised by their attorneys not to comment until after a hearing in March on the Derrick Williams rape case.

"If you can't say something that's going to make it better, it's probably best not to say anything. Discussing the errors and omissions probably isn't beneficial to the agency," says defense attorney Andrea Mogenson.

Mogenson isn't surprised the sheriff's office doesn't want to talk about the lost evidence, because this embarrassment has serious consequences.

"Each individual case is going to have an individual problem," Mogenson said.

And with the problems with the missing evidence in Manatee County, could innocent people be locked up and innocent people set free?

"Without a doubt," Mogenson said.

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