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Report: ME Office Mishandled Criminal Evidence

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The ME's office has sole responsibility for investigating all sudden, unexpected and suspicious deaths. The ME's office has sole responsibility for investigating all sudden, unexpected and suspicious deaths.
The grand jury indicates evidence bags were placed next to trash cans filled with food and drinks and blood-stained clothes were left hanging to dry, with other contaminants in the room. The grand jury indicates evidence bags were placed next to trash cans filled with food and drinks and blood-stained clothes were left hanging to dry, with other contaminants in the room.

By Jeffrey Smith, The News On 6

TULSA, OK -- A scathing report alleges abuses of power that threaten the credibility of the state's Medical Examiner's Office.

A grand jury reports the agency mishandled evidence and that could have a big impact on convicted criminals.

The ME's Office is solely responsible for investigating sudden or suspicious deaths. Because of what the report states about how evidence was handled, some attorneys believe criminal appeals will have new life.

The report lists examples of how evidence was mishandled:

  • "Crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia" displayed openly on desks.
  • Evidence bags "placed right next to trash receptacles" filled with food and drinks.
  • When "blood stained clothing" was left hanging to dry, "no safeguards were taken to make sure there was no cross contamination."

Read the Grand Jury's Full Report

"It could very well affect the viability of convictions in the future," said Allen Smallwood, an attorney.

Defense attorney Allen Smallwood has been practicing law for 35 years. During a trial, prosecutors must establish that the evidence is accurate and uncontaminated.

But Smallwood says attorneys could use the report to establish "reasonable doubt."

"This points out some big time problem areas," said Cherokee Ballard, Medical Examiner's Office.

The ME's Office says with a new chief investigator leading the way, protocol is changing.

"We have changed the way we collect evidence when it comes in, when someone dies. We're working on new policies on that as we speak," said Cherokee Ballard.

When asked if the report could lead to an increase in criminal appeals, even convictions being overturned, the Tulsa District Attorney's Office released the following statement:

"To our knowledge, there isn't any information relating to a specific case, or a specific defendant here in Tulsa County. The indictments remain sealed, and we will not speculate on what this could mean for our office."

"All that DNA can be contaminated and throw huge doubt into where it came from," said Allen Smallwood.

Smallwood says the eight-page report shines a light on the agency's pervasive problems.

"Pervasive in the sense that it hasn't happened just one time, but is an example of systematic, of a systematic case of negligence in handling evidence. And it can affect numerous, dozens maybe, murder, manslaughter and homicide convictions," said Allen Smallwood.

This report is significant even outside the criminal sphere. Often times the ME's Office is involved in investigating if a death is a suicide or accidental and that can play a role in civil cases, with respect to insurance coverage.

7/20/2009  Related Story: Report: ME's Office Employees Emotionally, Sexually Victimized

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