Inside the forensic files: NYPD shows PIX11 how it’s tracking evidence

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BROOKLYN (PIX11) -- When we met NYPD Inspector Thomas Scollan at a neatly kept evidence warehouse in Brooklyn, he made it clear the Property Clerk Division follows strict, “chain of custody” procedures when it comes to tracking crime scene evidence.

Scollan has been charged, since last year, with turning the division around, as it relies more and more on computer technology to secure homicide folders, rape kits, and guns.

When asked about the improvements that came with PETS (Property and Evidence Tracking System), Inspector Scollan said simply, “It’s huge.”

In the three years since police officers and detectives started putting items from crime scenes in bags with pre-printed “bar codes," Scollan notes, PETS technology has allowed officers to “track the property right to the shelf location.”

The NYPD Property Clerk Division has warehouses and other facilities in all, five boroughs, but in 2012 Superstorm Sandy forced the department to take another look at where it was storing evidence.

There was damage done to files in two NYPD warehouses located in flood zones.

The city now wants to consolidate four facilities into one, large warehouse, with a location still to be decided.

Scollan noted  with the computer bar codes, there’s less need for paper invoices to be stapled to evidence bags. That’s a good thing, because invoices—on occasion—can get dislodged from their stapleand their kits.

53-year old Alan Newton of the Bronx knows that all too well. Thirty years ago,  he was convicted of rape, going to prison insisting he was innocent. In 1994, when DNA technology started emerging as a major, new force in clearing people wrongly convicted, Newton started petitioning the NYPD to re-test the rape kit from his case.

“The city claimed they couldn’t find the rape kit,” Newton recalled this week.  “They claimed it got destroyed, so it was like, every two years, I put in a new motion….’94, ’96, ’98.”

When lawyers from the Innocence Project took an interest in Newton’s case, in 2004, things started moving.  An assistant District Attorney from the Bronx took mercy on Newton’s pleas.

“She wrote a letter to the Police Department that said let’s find this man’s evidence once and for all,” Newton said.

“The rape kit was found in Queens County, in an evidence warehouse on Pearson Place. My paperwork was found in a bag with other, crumpled-up paper,” Newton told PIX11.

Rape kits are typically kept in paper bags, stored in large evidence barrels.

Newton was freed from state prison in 2006, cleared of rape, 21 years after he was locked up.

The city is appealing a civil judgement of $18.5 million dollars that a jury awarded Newton for his wrongful incarceration.

There are many layers in the collection of evidence, beginning with vouchering and invoicing at the precinct level. Items often get sent to the Borough Command, if there’s need for lab testing. After the evidence gets tested, it’s often taken to the Property Clerk Division.

The Office of Chief Medical Examiner, a separate agency, often does testing on evidence collected from the remains of homicide victims.

A former criminalist who worked in the ME’s office for twelve years startled PIX11, when the ex-employee revealed there was a period when biological evidence was stored in an unlikely place.

“There was stuff stored in the basement of the Bellevue Men’s Shelter,” the criminalist told PIX11.  “We’re right next door to it.  Sometimes, the homeless people broke in.”

The forensic files were later moved to an off-site facility in Queens.

This was likely during the time when a new, forensic lab was being built on 26th Street in Manhattan.

When we asked the present-day Medical Examiner’s spokesperson about what the criminalist said, PIX11 got this response:

“Since 2006, evidence has been stored in a secure location in our Forensic Biology Laboratory Building,” Julie Bolcer, the spokesperson, told PIX11, “with ‘chain of custody’ records maintained at all times.”

The NYPD has more than 12 million invoices held in big “white books”—1000 invoices per book—that reflects evidence and property seized back to the 1970’s.

Inspector Scollan pointed out that if someone was convicted of a felony and received a 40 year prison term, “We have to keep it (the evidence) for three quarters of that sentence, so that would be 30 years.  That’s a significant amount of time.  That’s for the appeals process.”

That was good news for Alan Newton, because his rape kit was finally found.

And a Sergeant from the Division pointed out that log books are still used all the time, when detectives sign out evidence.
But there’s an extra step now.

“The officer does have to give his fingerprint, when he takes something to court.”

The goal is for that evidence to return to its proper shelf.

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