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They've got evidence down to a science

August 08, 2004|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - A black painted line marks the spot - it's a makeshift stop sign just 2 feet beyond the entrance to the Hagerstown Police Department's evidence room.

"Anyone who steps across this line has to sign in here, giving their name, date, time and reason for being in here," Forensic Scientist Susan Blankenship said.

It's one of several measures designed to prevent the loss of or tampering with criminal evidence, said Blankenship and fellow Forensic Scientist Jeff Kercheval.

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They and a part-time employee are responsible for managing and handling about 6,000 new pieces of evidence that come into the department annually. When they're not handling evidence, the two forensic scientists are analyzing evidence at the Western Maryland Regional Crime Laboratory, which also is housed in the police department.

Blankenship said that last year area law enforcement personnel wrote 1,700 property reports, which list evidence collected in connection with a case. That evidence can remain under lock and key for years.

"We have evidence from a 1975 homicide," she said. "The statute of limitations on homicides never expires."

The police department's property room resembles a medieval dungeon. In the basement of the police station on Burhans Boulevard, the property room has cinder-block walls and is protected behind reinforced steel security doors. The walls are lined with shelves and gun racks holding enough firearms to arm a small militia. On the floor, boxes fill every corner.

There is an order to the room that the forensic scientists understand.

"These are all knives, some daggers," said Blankenship as she pointed to a box. "Over here is a clothing rack, videotapes, cassette-taped statements, 911 tapes, tapes out of answering machines, a little bit of everything."

For city and county law enforcement officials, managing criminal evidence is a very detailed and time-consuming process.

"All of this takes a tremendous amount of time, a tremendous amount of management and a tremendous amount of paperwork," Kercheval said.

Kercheval said managing evidence requires a high level of organization and his staff has to stay abreast of state and federal laws governing criminal evidence. He said a seamless process is crucial to earn the public's trust and help ensure justice is served.

The goal is the same for those who oversee the property evidence room for the Washington County Sheriff's Department. There, the evidence room is not as full and is smaller and more modern, but many of the procedures are the same.

Only detectives are allowed into the department's property room, which remains locked 24 hours a day. Properly filed evidence starts with an officer completing a property report that lists each piece of evidence. The report also provides the name of the officer and contact information for the owner of the property being stored, said Christopher Weaver, a detective with the Washington County Sheriff's Department. He's one of six detectives allowed to handle property room evidence.

Officers in both departments take evidence to the respective property rooms, but they are not allowed to enter. When the evidence rooms are unstaffed, secure metal containers are used to temporarily store evidence until it's filed, officials said.

Cash seizures are photocopied to record serial numbers, and each department deposits confiscated monies into noninterest-bearing bank accounts. The sheriff's department does keep some smaller amounts of cash in its property room.

Property evidence reports also track movement of each piece of evidence that comes into an officer's hands. It is what law enforcement officials call the "chain of custody."

"For court purposes, you have documentation or a paper trail of when you collected it and who, at each stage, had their hands on it," Washington County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Mark Knight said. Knight leads the department's Criminal Investigation Unit. He says a gap or unexplained break in the chain of custody could jeopardize a case.

After a case concludes, drug evidence is destroyed by a select group of detectives. Knight said officers work in teams of two when drug evidence is removed from the department and destroyed at a local incinerator.

At the Hagerstown Police Department, Kercheval and Blankenship are responsible for destroying drugs, but they also include a third person from another department.

"We take the professional standards officer," Blankenship said. "We take (the drugs) over to the incinerator and watch them go into the incinerator. We don't leave until all the boxes are burned."

Neither the Hagerstown Police Department nor the Washington County Sheriff's Department have reported any internal thefts, fraud or illegal activity regarding the handling of evidence in recent years, Knight and Kercheval said.

Kercheval and Blankenship said the police department's system of checks and balances includes occasional polygraph exams administered to property room staff. Kercheval said his staff welcomes the exams, which he believes protect the department's integrity.

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