Colorado Police Department 'Mistakenly' Destroyed DNA Evidence in 48 Sexual Assault Cases
Colorado's Aurora Police Department is scrambling to determine how a breakdown in protocol led to the destruction of DNA evidence in 48 sexual assault cases. In the case that made the department aware of the problem, destroyed DNA evidence was matched to an attacker, and the Department was moving toward charges. Instead, Police Chief Daniel Oates was forced to visit the victim's home, and regretfully inform her that they will no longer be able to prosecute her attacker. At a press conference last night, Oates called the meeting a "very sad" and "painful moment," adding that he "felt obliged to go and deliver that information myself."
In another case, the destroyed DNA evidence was linked to two other sexual assaults, but the attacker had not yet been identified. Chief Olsen is hopeful that prosecution will still be possible due to other evidence, like eyewitness testimony, but admitted that, "That case is obviously harmed by the destruction of DNA evidence here.”
Oates said the department receives 50,000 pieces of property or evidence per year, and must also remove it to keep their "heads above water."
Oates said all of the cases date back to 2009, as the department was destroying four-to-five-year-old evidence considered to be no longer needed. Thirty of the cases were active, but Oates said he does not know that any other than the two described were “viable for prosecution,” due to lack of probable cause or, particularly, victims’ decisions not to pursue charges. (Rape is incredibly difficult to prosecute, and the arrest rate is just about 24%). Still, he added, "The law provides that, even if that is so, we are supposed to hold that evidence. And we did not do so....I deeply regret it."
The department’s destruction of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases “departed,” as Oates said, from 2009 law establishing protocol for evidence destruction. "We need to get to the bottom of this, learn from it, do the best we can to have better systems in place, and move on."
In 18 of the 48 cases, the lead detective “provided information to property and evidence, indicating evidence ready for destruction,” said Oates, “Under our protocols, that is only the first step before evidence is destroyed.” An additional thirty cases were destroyed at the direction of an injured or “light duty” police officer assigned to the property clerk section.
Oates told reporters that a special panel of policing experts will review the breakdown in protocol to identify where the problems arose and establish the means necessary to ensure it does not happen again. They have four months -- until November 1st -- to investigate and make recommendations. Oates also said he contacted the Executive Director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual, Erin Jemison, adding that "We may be leaning on her and her organization for help in the future."
“What we need to do is correct our systems," said Oates, who stressed that the error was linked to "systems and process," not the intentional misdoing of officers. He also said that he suspects training is part of the problem, and will look at how existing protocols could be made more clear. "Certainly not anyone did this intentionally," he said, adding that the Department "certainly screwed up."