Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Inside cramped vaults, the evidence mounts

Brevard has no plans to increase space


Not many warehouse managers keep tabs on the type of inventory that Patrick Grenville and Marie Sarino watch over for the Brevard County court system.

Lining the shelves of the Moore Justice Center's two evidence vaults are boxes and envelopes dating back to at least 1974 that contain everything from an 18-pack of Busch beer to a shotgun.

Evidence clerks say items are piling up at a rate that threatens to overload their confines, and the vaults are nearly at capacity. But court officials argue that these judicial artifacts, thousands of them, must be warehoused for legal reasons in case of appeals by convicted felons.

In 2006 alone, local lawyers filed 750 appeals on behalf of defendants convicted in Brevard County, according to court supervisor Pat Ketter.

The stockpile of preserved evidence includes a hodgepodge of blood samples, shovels, baseball bats, envelopes holding driver's licenses and breathalyzer results, an ironing board, a wheelchair from a Social Security fraud case and that pack of beer from a misdemeanor DUI.

There is also:

A cane with a sword hidden inside.

The long-barreled assault rifle death-row inmate William Cruse used to gun down six people and injure a dozen others outside a Palm Bay shopping plaza in 1987, as well as several scale models of the parking lot where the shooting spree took place.

A five-foot tall wooden box containing 140 pounds of pot.

The evidence can't be arbitrarily discarded: State law requires evidence from capital cases be stored for 75 years, while evidence from non-capital crimes and acquittals must be kept for three years. DNA evidence must be stored while the person is in prison.

Brevard County takes it even further: The county stores evidence until a defendant is released from jail or prison.

"You'd hate to get rid of something and somewhere down the line something comes up and it could have been useful," said Grenville, one of two evidence clerks whose daily job includes logging evidence into the first-floor vaults.

Clerks say the vaults -- two
code-locked rooms monitored by an alarm system and surveillance camera and lined with two four-shelf storage units on each side -- are about 95 percent full.

Clerk of Court Scott Ellis said the architects who expanded the Moore Justice Center in 2003 initially planned to make the newer vault, located behind the file room, twice as large, but downgraded the size due to building code limitations. An even smaller, older vault was built along with the original courthouse in 1996.

County commissioners recently approved a plan to expand the courthouse, but Ellis said there are no plans for the costly additions to evidence storage.

To remedy the space crunch, Grenville said he and Sarino destroy evidence from criminal cases about two or three times a year, after researching which cases have been resolved and obtaining a motion from the state attorney and a court order from a judge. About twice a month, the clerks destroy evidence from civil trials. Evidence from civil cases may be destroyed 90 days after the case closes if neither party picks up the items within 30 days of notice.

The paperwork is usually shredded, while other items are dumped. Drugs and weapons are turned over to the Brevard County Sheriff's Office for disposal. An outside company picks up bio-hazardous materials, such as DNA samples or blood-soaked clothing, and incinerates them, Grenville said.

"If I had not been able to get a couple of 'destructs' out of the way by the state, we'd probably be over full," Grenville said.

Sarino said much of the evidence they deal with is "mundane" income tax forms and other paperwork, but she and Grenville have encountered some odd items, including an ironing board used as evidence in a non-capital murder case and an assortment of colorful whips from a civil domestic dispute.

There are gory autopsy photos and sealed evidence bags, which sometimes develop an odor from bacteria-ridden body fluids.

"Not everyone can handle the criminal part of this job very well," Grenville said. "You have to have a strong stomach."

Contact Summers at 242-3642 or ksummers@floridatoday.com.

No comments: