UPDATE: DA's office announces plan to handle years of untested evidence
The bags, located at the Hamilton County Medical Examiners Office, contain a variety of forensic evidence, such as bullet fragments, hair and nail clippings could be used to prosecute, or exonerate people accused of crimes.
UPDATE: A committee of citizens appointed by District Attorney General Neal Pinkston to oversee inventory of unprocessed evidence has settled on the protocol that will be used to handle untested evidence that has been stored in the Medical Examiner’s Office for up to thirty years.
They hope to have the process completed by the end of 2016, according to a news release.
The DA's office says they are researching to buy video equipment to be used to document the inventory process. Once the equipment is in place, Hamilton County’s Audit Department will start work on the inventory.
The process will be open to the media with the goal of transparency, while while maintaining the proper chain of custody for the criminal evidence.
The Members of the DA’s citizen oversight committee are:
- Buddy Perry, retired Judge, 12th Judicial District of Tennessee
- Hugh Moore, former civil rights prosecutor, US Department of Justice
- Lee Davis, former Hamilton County prosecutor
- Professor Dwight Aarons, University of Tennessee College of Law
- Eddie Holmes, Past President of Chattanooga NAACP
Pinkston set up the committee to supervise the process of ensuring conviction integrity in an unknown number of prosecuted homicides that have unanalyzed evidence.
Any defendants convicted of a homicide between the years 1986 and 2002 who seeks additional information about their case and unanalyzed evidence can contact the District Attorney's office at 423-209-7400.
PREVIOUS STORY: Chattanooga Police Department spokesman Kyle Miller said in a written statement:
"This occurred before Chief of Police Fred Fletcher and his Executive Staff took office. Currently there are no known issues with evidence concerning the Chattanooga Police Department.
CPD adheres to all industry best practices. The Chief is committed to working with our criminal justice partners and the court system to find a productive solution to an issue that occurred many years ago. The District Attorney is the lead partner in this response."
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond also responded to the District Attorney's Office evidence discovery with the following statement:
“Recently, the HCSO was made aware officials with the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office Cold Case Unit had discovered unprocessed evidence from a number of homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths spanning the years 1986-2002 stored at the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Having been made aware of this situation, my staff immediately met with District Attorney Pinkston in order to be made fully aware of the details of the discovery and how the District Attorney’s Office plans to move forward.
While many of the details have yet to be determined and if any of this evidence pertains to City and County cases, I have assured General Pinkston the HCSO will work with his office as we move forward under his guidance and direction.”
PREVIOUS STORY: Potentially hundreds of bags of evidence from local homicide cases have recently been discovered in storage at the Hamilton County Medical Examiner's Office.
The evidence is from autopsies between the years of 1986 and 2002, and includes things like bullet fragments, fingernail clippings, hair and notes from crime scenes.
An initial review of years 1986-88 has yielded 35 death investigations with evidence that has never left the building. Twenty-two of those cases are homicides and the rest are accidental, suicide or natural cause deaths. Twenty of the homicide cases have presumably already been prosecuted and two of them are cold case murders.
The Medical Examiner's office recently informed District Attorney Neal Pinkston about the find.
"There could be evidence there that removes somebody's conviction. It could shed light on a different suspect," Pinkston said.
Pinkston says it's possible the untested evidence could be used to prosecute or exonerate someone but says they won't know for sure until they examine all the evidence. The full scope of the evidence is not yet known and now they must properly inventory the evidence.
"It could be highly useful to identify someone, or it could have medium relevance, or no relevance whatsoever, you never know until you're aware of it and its tested," he said.
Now Pinkston is making a plan for how to go through all the evidence. He anticipates having an oversight committee selected by January 15 that will help finalize the protocol for accounting for all the unexamined evidence. Defense Attorney Lee Davis has been asked to serve on that committee, which will also include an out of district and/or retired Judge, a civil rights advocate and a law professor.
"If there are individuals out there with cases affected by it, then the individual or their attorney needs to inspect and review it," Davis said.
The DA's office says the process will be tedious but hopefully completed by the end of 2016. Any defendant convicted of a homicide between 1986 and 2002 who wants to know if his or her case has unprocessed evidence is asked to call Pinkston's office at 423-209-7400.