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Uncertainty remains about Horry County police evidence

BYLINE: By Brad Dickerson -
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Horry County, SC

In light of an anonymous letter accusing Horry County police officers of, among other things, stealing drugs and money from the department’s evidence room, some County Council members want S.C. Law Enforcement to conduct an audit.

But what are the thoughts of those who rely on that evidence and its complex chain of custody when trying cases and defending clients in a court of law?

It was a question posed to prosecutors and defense attorneys on Wednesday, the day after Horry County Administrator John Weaver recommended publicly to County Council that his investigation into the allegations contained in the letter be ended with finality. His findings were that eight of the nine accusations were unsubstantiated.

The sole remaining question was regarding the missing evidence, which Weaver said he didn’t investigate because it was beyond the expertise of the human resources investigation. Council members will again discuss a possible SLED audit and evidence room procedures at the Oct. 11 Committee of the Whole meeting.

Greg Hembree, Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor, said based on the anonymous source of the letter, it has no value in his view whatsoever.

“I think it is a bad precedent to engage public resources, at great expense ... based on these unsubstantiated, unsigned, hurtful, agenda-driven allegations,” he said. Hembree added that, the letter notwithstanding, an internal audit every now and then should be conducted by police department officials.

The unnamed letter writer stated that the hope was an investigation into the allegations -- primarily directed at Deputy Chief David Beaty and Lt. Michael Cannon -- would have been conducted in March after Dave Jolliff, a former Horry County police officer, withdrew his name from consideration for Murrells Inlet magistrate judge.

Myrtle Beach defense attorney Stuart Axelrod, however, has a different take on the allegation of missing evidence. He said drugs and money in the evidence room are supposed to be kept under strict lock and key.

Axelrod said it would be a sad day if the allegation of missing drugs was true and they’d gone from the evidence room back on to the streets.

“I think that’s a matter for SLED or the FBI or some other organization to come in and do an audit of the drugs and money,” he said.”

Axelrod doesn’t think the department handling its own audit would be the best way to go.

“You don’t send a fox into the henhouse,” he said.

Investigating allegations of missing evidence

It was Councilman Harold Worley who called for an evidence audit by SLED after Weaver told council he hadn’t investigated the allegation of missing drugs and money.

Worley said that of all the allegations contained in the letter, missing evidence was the most serious to him.

Hembree agreed that it wouldn’t be appropriate for Weaver or someone on his behalf to undertake the responsibility of checking to see if any evidence had gone missing.

If Weaver or someone on his behalf does search for missing evidence, they become involved in the evidentiary chain of custody and would have to be put on the witness stand to testify if the case came to trial.

“That could create a huge problem for us if they did that,” Hembree said.

Hembree said no cases past or present have been impacted by the anonymous letter.

One of the allegations was a videotape showing Cannon acting as a “peeping Tom” was turned over to the Conway Police Department, but has since gone missing.

In his report Tuesday to council members, Weaver said officials with the CPD reported it conducted no investigation nor had any evidence concerning that allegation.

The evidentiary chain of custody

So, what does happen to evidence from the time it’s taken from the scene of a crime until the time it’s needed for trial?

Axelrod used the example of a person being pulled over for allegedly driving under the influence.

If “Joe Smith” is arrested and officers find cocaine in his pocket, he’ll get a blue ticket for the DUI and transferred to J. Reuben Long Detention Facility. As “Smith” is being booked, the arresting officer will get a magistrate to sign a warrant charging the suspect with trafficking cocaine, and the drugs will be put into the HCPD’s evidence drop box, Axelrod explained.

“It should be something like a mailbox,” he said.

“Mr. Smith” is served the warrant, and the officer will submit a form saying he dropped however many ounces of cocaine into the evidence box, Axelrod said. The evidence technician will collect the drugs, record the date, time and amount and put the materials in a sealed envelope and store it in the evidence room.

Axelrod said if he were “Smith’s” attorney, he’d wait to see if the material tested positive for cocaine. Once it goes to the lab, the lab technician becomes another person in the evidentiary chain of custody.

If the cocaine were to go from the police department’s evidence technician, suddenly disappear for a month and then come back, Axelrod said the question now becomes whether or not that cocaine has been tampered with.

Drug and blood samples are what Axelrod calls fungible evidence, which can be changed or lost. Cocaine, for example, needs to be kept in a dry surrounding, while blood or other fluids must be refrigerated.

“It’s kept a little differently than you would keep a sneaker,” Axelrod said.

An evidence audit in the future?

Kathryn Richardson, SLED spokeswoman, wouldn’t comment Wednesday as to whether or not Horry County officials had contacted them about conducting an audit of the HCPD’s evidence room.

The Horry County Legislative Delegation asked SLED officials to look into the allegations made in the anonymous letter.

Rep. Nelson Hardwick sent a letter dated Aug. 30 to SLED Director Mark Keel asking for an investigation into the letter, which was sent to members of the county legislative delegation as well as Horry County Council.

Richardson said the letter is still under review by SLED.

As for now, Horry County Council will wait and get a report at the Oct. 11 COW meeting about HCPD procedures when it comes to handling evidence.

Hembree said if SLED was brought in, they could possibly avoid becoming part of the chain of command if they examine evidence to see if any’s missing while in the presence of a member of the HCPD evidence team.

“It’s like the evidence is still in custody of the evidence person,” he said.

The COW meeting will be at 9 a.m. on Oct. 11 at the Horry County Government & Justice Center.

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