The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 22, 2012

Hundreds of drug cases affected by compromised BPD evidence room

By Wendy Holdren
Register-Herald Reporter

— Raleigh County Prosecuting Attorney Kristen Keller has confirmed that any drug-related cases involving evidence housed in the property room at the Beckley Police Department in the past 15 months will be dismissed.

Keller said police notified her that in some drug cases, there are narcotics missing from evidence.

During a Wednesday afternoon press conference Beckley Police Chief Tim Deems confirmed that Gabriella Brown is the department’s technician responsible for the BPD evidence room. Deems said Brown went on medical leave late last week.

Deems also said that he notified U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin’s office about the matter Wednesday morning. A spokesperson for Goodwin’s office would neither confirm or deny that report.

Once evidence control is compromised in any of the cases for that relevant time period, Keller explained, the prosecutor’s office has no choice but to dismiss all drug cases for that time frame.

Keller is notifying the Public Defender’s Office, as well as members of the West Virginia State Bar about the developing situation.

The first case was dismissed Wednesday morning after public defender Joe Noggy notified the prosecutor’s office that the case on the docket involved evidence housed in the Beckley Police Department during the 15-month time frame in question.

“The first disclosure came to us on Friday and we’ve been dealing with trying to find out exactly what the scope of the problem is,” Keller said. “I’m estimating scores, maybe a couple hundred cases.”

Not only pending cases are subject to dismissal, but convictions or guilty pleas could potentially be vacated if a person or his or her attorney believes that the chain of custody for the evidence in their case was compromised.

“The chain of custody, which is normally a routine part of a trial, is essential in order to convict a person. They have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the item of evidence, let’s say pills, is in fact what we contend it is. When we know there is a breach in integrity in the evidence system, we can’t in good faith vouch for it.”

Chain of custody is normally a non-issue, Keller explained, “but this makes it a big issue.”

Keller said police officers discovered the problem last week, then disclosed the information to Deems and Detective Capt. Jeff Shumate. An inventory of evidence for all cases is ongoing and has not been concluded.

“The public should be so gratified that Chief Deems and the police officers, as soon as they had information that this was a problem, immediately let me know. The fact of the matter is, if they wanted to, they absolutely could have covered this up and no one would have ever known. They really are to be commended for immediately making the necessary disclosures and taking the actions to address the problem.”

She said cases in which drugs were placed at the sheriff’s department or the West Virginia State Police will not be affected, only those at the Beckley Police Department for the estimated 15-month time period.

When The Register-Herald asked Keller why the time frame of questionable evidence is estimated at 15 months, she replied: “Ethically, I can’t yet disclose that. I’ll be able to later.”

All attorneys will be notified of this situation, but Keller is also urging anyone who has pleaded guilty or who has a pending case to consult with an attorney or contact the prosecutor’s office to see if their case may be affected.

Register-Herald reporter Kara Van Pelt also contributed to this story.

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com