Care of evidence played role in Dewey exoneration
Jason Kreag’s work usually is over before it starts.
Kreag, an attorney with New York-based litigation and policy group Innocence Project, which helped free 51-year-old Robert Dewey from prison, said half of the roughly 300 cases his group works on at a given time are dropped early because of lost or degraded DNA evidence, usually the victim of subpar storage.
Dewey’s freedom this week, and hopes for justice for 1994 murder victim Jacie Taylor, may be owed in part to internal decisions at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department a decade ago.
“Certainly, they deserve credit for anticipating, and reacting to, what the probative value of DNA can be,” Kreag said of evidence kept by the agency for 18 years in Taylor’s slaying. “I wish every agency could preserve evidence as well as it was stored in Mr. Dewey’s case.”
Ideal conditions don’t describe the Sheriff Department’s property and evidence facility in the early 2000s, when biological evidence was stored in “a conglomeration of regular household refrigerators,” Sheriff Stan Hilkey said.
“We went through a process of getting funds and upgrading,” Hilkey said. “We didn’t have sufficient capability to store evidence.”
The agency invested in commercial-grade refrigerators and freezers, and the units’ internal temperatures are digitally displayed for observation by a trio of employees, Hilkey said. It’s easily the most restricted, and audited, wing of the building, and access is limited to a select few, he said.
“I can’t get in unless I’m let in,” Hilkey said, noting the area is under constant video surveillance. “You have to be escorted at all times, sign in and out.”
The refrigerator and freezer units, where DNA is stored, have a backup supply of power in the event of building-wide power outages. Pager alerts are supposed to warn staff to fluctuations of temperature. The alarms are hardwired to master control, a post manned 24/7 by staff who control the jail’s movement. The agency also contracts with a private outside firm to monitor alerts.
The environment around DNA and other evidence is extreme for good reason.
“There’s not a lot in this world that gets a chief or sheriff in trouble more than mishandling evidence,” Hilkey said.
Colorado in 2008 enacted legislation mandating DNA evidence be preserved at least a decade after adjudication of a criminal, although Hilkey said it’s often stored longer.
Evidence in Taylor’s slaying was shipped for renewed DNA testing to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in two waves, in April and October of last year, including material scraped from Taylor’s fingernails, the dog leash used to strangle her, samples of semen and blood from a blanket found in Taylor’s apartment, soap bars found inserted in her body, and her shirt, among other items.
“Most of it came off her body, so that was all under water,” said Julie Selsberg, senior assistant attorney general and coordinator of the Colorado Justice Review Project.
DNA isn’t necessarily lost on wet items, although destruction risks by bacteria elevate when evidence isn’t handled properly, Kreag said.
“Had they put wet evidence in a plastic bag, it might have been destroyed,” he said.
The DNA testing that proved Dewey did not rape and murder Taylor led to his release Monday after serving nearly 16 years in prison following a conviction at trial.
In turn, the DNA matched that of Douglas Thames Jr., who was arrested this week on suspicion of Taylor’s rape and murder. Thames already is in prison, having been convicted for the 1989 rape and murder of Fort Collins woman Susan Doll.