What’s at stake with untold loss of DNA evidence in NYPD warehouse fire


Firefighters have contained the blaze that tore through a sprawling Red Hook warehouse where the NYPD was storing decades’ worth of DNA evidence and thousands of seized motor vehicles.

But criminal justice reformers, former police officers and civil rights attorneys are raising alarms about cold cases and potential exonerations, saying the fire’s destruction could have an impact on those cases for years to come.

“I got this sense of gloom,” said Joseph Giacalone, a retired commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Case files themselves are archived in individual precincts, he explained, but bits of evidence are stored by the NYPD in several centralized warehouses such as the one that burst into flames Tuesday.

In newer cases, DNA evidence would be cataloged in electronic databases maintained by the NYPD and the Medical Examiner’s Office, he said, but in older cases where the evidence was never cataloged in electronic databases, the original samples stored at the warehouse are often the only place where the genetic evidence exists.

“This will go on for years,” he warned. “It’s extremely frustrating and it’s actually a big problem.”

At a press conference Tuesday, NYPD Chief Jeffrey Maddrey promised a careful accounting of what types of DNA evidence were lost in the smoldering warehouse. He said decades’ worth of evidence was stored there, though he said rape kits were not at the location. The NYPD didn’t return a request for further comment Wednesday.

Redmond Haskins, a spokesperson for the Legal Aid society said the group was still waiting to hear from law enforcement on what cases were affected, and said it had particular concerns about potential exoneration cases.

Martin Tankleff — an attorney and advocate for the wrongfully convicted who spent nearly two decades behind bars for the murder of his parents and was later cleared — said he was worried about those cases too. He pointed to the case of Alan Newton, who fought the NYPD for more than a decade to have DNA evidence examined. That evidence eventually proved his innocence.

“Quite often, in post-conviction proceedings, that is one of the key issues that help in exonerations,” he said. “And to hear that such a critical storage area could go up in flames and all that evidence could be destroyed is devastating.”

Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, said even in cases of exonerations, relatively few cases rely on old DNA evidence. In Brooklyn, he said one case in two dozen has relied on old DNA evidence since the DAs office revamped its Conviction Review Unit in 2014.

The NYPD has rented the warehouse from Erie Basin Bargeport Associates for more than a decade, city contract records show. FDNY officials told Gothamist the warehouse had a dry sprinkler system, which quickly activated when triggered by the heat, but the flames spread too quickly for the sprinklers to tamp the fire out.

Neither the NYPD, nor Erie Basin returned a request for comment on that right away. As of Thursday morning, the FDNY was still investigating what caused the blaze.

In addition to DNA evidence, the facility was one of two tow pounds where the NYPD stores thousands of mopeds, scooters, motorcycles and cars seized from New Yorkers each year. It’s unclear what recourse owners would have if their vehicle was destroyed in the blaze. A spokesperson for the NYPD didn’t return a request for comment immediately.

The safety and security of DNA evidence in NYPD custody has long been of concern for criminal justice advocates.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York a decade ago, the issue was thrust to the fore when the Red Hook warehouse where the fire occurred this week and a second storage facility flooded, damaging thousands of barrels containing DNA evidence. The flood affected numerous criminal cases after the storm.

Photo included in a 2012 report by the NYC Medical Examiner’s Office, taken by the NYPD following Hurricane Sandy.


Photos taken after the storm by NYPD officers and later presented in a 2012 report by the city’s Medical Examiner showed cardboard barrels called “biological evidence collection containers,” strewn about the facility.

“It’s at all related to poor conditions in those facilities. Poor supervision, poor monitoring, poor upkeep,” said Debra Cohen, a civil rights attorney, who said civil cases also rely on the NYPD’s storage of evidence. Even without a mass event like a fire or a flood, Cohen said attorneys often raise red flags about individual cases where DNA evidence has degraded because it wasn’t properly stored.

Photo included in a 2012 report by the NYC Medical Examiner’s Office, taken by the NYPD following Hurricane Sandy.


She said she spent months trying to get the NYPD to produce evidence while she was representing the family of Mohamed Bah, a man suffering from mental illness who was killed by police in 2012. Ultimately the NYPD cited Sandy flooding for why they couldn’t produce any evidence, including the knife they said Bah allegedly had at the time of his killing.

During the course of that civil case, Cohen and other attorneys questioned the NYPD extensively about their evidence storage methods. Sergeant John Capozzi, who was assigned to the NYPD’s Property Clerk Division testified that evidence was stored in 55 gallon cardboard drums, stacked on top of one another on pallets. Each drum would contain items from multiple cases stuffed inside either cardboard boxes or paper bags, transcripts from the trial show.

It’s unclear if that is still how items were currently being stored in the Brooklyn warehouse, and the NYPD didn’t return a request for comment right away.

“I hope there’ll be a really intensive investigation into what caused this fire and whether or not the NYPD and the City of New York have been negligent in how they’ve dealt with it,” Cohen said. “There’s a very important responsibility to properly collect and preserve evidence … There’s so much at stake.”


Source link

Related posts

Warmer weather expected in NYC as November begins

Paul Vasquez

In NY governor’s race, all eyes on New York City despite Kathy Hochul’s advantage

Paul Vasquez

NYC’s early voters head to the polls

Paul Vasquez