The Austin Chronicl reports, "Where's Your Evidence? Advances in forensic science have made physical evidence increasingly crucial in criminal justice – but the practice of preserving and maintaining that evidence is often underfunded, poorly managed, or just plain sloppy. It's by Jordan Smith. Here's the beginning of this detailed, must-read:
For more than a decade, lawyers for death row inmate Hank Skinner fought prosecutors – in Gray County and the attorney general's office – for the right to DNA-test certain items of evidence. Skinner was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1993 murder of his girlfriend Twila Busby and her two grown sons in the home they shared in the Panhandle town of Pampa. The crime scene was bloody – Busby was bludgeoned, her sons repeatedly stabbed – and while some DNA tests have been performed, there was plenty of evidence that hadn't been tested, including a sweat- and blood-stained windbreaker. The jacket is crucial, attorney Rob Owen has argued; found next to Busby's body, the tan snap-front jacket resembled one regularly worn by Busby's now-deceased uncle Robert Donnell, who the defense claims was obsessed with Busby and may have been her real killer. In short, testing the jacket might help prove Skinner's innocence – or confirm his guilt.
On June 1, 2012, the state finally dropped its opposition to the testing. Just two weeks later, Owen was again frustrated when the AG's Office informed him that the windbreaker was missing. "According to the state, every other piece of evidence in this case has been preserved," he said at the time. "It is difficult to understand how the state has managed to maintain custody of items as small as fingernail clippings, while apparently losing something as large as a man's windbreaker."
No one seems to know when or how the jacket went missing. The Pampa Police Department, which investigated the murders, originally held all of the evidence related to the case. When the time came for Skinner to be tried, the evidence was handed over to Gray County. Some time after Skinner was tried, the jacket simply disappeared – and no one knows where it went, said Gary Noblett, a 41-year veteran of the Pampa PD and custodian of its evidence and property storage. Over the years, he said, a number of law enforcement types have called looking for it – including officials with the AG's Office. "As far as I know of, no one's ever been able to find that thing," he said. Skinner remains on death row as DNA testing on other items of evidence continues.
Skinner's case is not unusual. Unfortunately, missing evidence is "way more common than you'd think," says evidence expert John Vasquez. Vasquez worked in property and evidence management for 25 years, first for the military and then for the Fort Worth and Wichita Falls PDs, before starting his own evidence-control consulting business.
Francis Newton was executed in 2005, following a 120 day reprieve ordered by Governor Perry to allow for forensic testing of evidence. The evidence had been stored improperly, however, and was contaminated.
Many observers believe that the large number of exonerations in Dallas County is due, in part at least, to the County's methodical preservation of biological evidence.
Judge Barbara Hervey's Criminal Justice Integrity Unit has had several presentations on problems with evidence storage.