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Evidence gathering and storage has changed over the years

By Erin Smith

When a crime occurs, one of the first things responding officers do is to secure the crime scene and begin searching for and gathering any evidence that may help them to learn the identity of the perpetrator. The Bladen County Sheriff’s Office is no different as techniques for collecting and storing evidence have changed over the years. The new Bladen County Law Enforcement and Detention Center contains a larger evidence storage area than the previous facility.

Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker said when he was elected there was no evidence custodian. Once elected, Sheriff McVicker said he hired Ron Matthews to serve as Evidence Custodian. The current Evidence Custodian is Sean Gibson. As with any move to new quarters, everything must be inventoried and present, this includes the items held in the evidence room and evidence lockers.

“We did an audit at the other place. Everything is audited and present and accounted for,” said Sheriff McVicker.  He added he is really pleased with the evidence storage program the Sheriff’s Office has in place now. Gibson said a lot of the records are digitized which eases the burden somewhat when performing an audit or reviewing evidence for a particular case.

He explained what happens when a crime occurs and evidence is gathered. Gibson said the responding officers will speak with the victim, and based on the victim’s account, they will gather items which can be processed for evidence such as DNA or finger prints.

The officer who is gathering the evidence will create a evidence log and each item will be assigned a case number and an item number. Each piece of evidence is placed into an individual bag and sealed with tape and the officer writes his or her initials along with the item number on the tape. Once all of the evidence is gathered, the individual bags are then placed in a large manilla envelop along with the evidence log and sealed with tape. The officer will initial and label the tape on the envelop. When the officer arrives at the Sheriff’s Office, he places it into a locker.

Gibson said he takes the envelop and inventories it’s contents and enters the each item into an inventory log which is maintained at the Sheriff’s Office. He said the items needing to be tested are then labeled, initialed, and sent to the laboratory for testing.

Gibson said he places all of the envelops containing evidence for that particular case into a box and the box is sealed, initialed, labeled for the case to which it pertains, and placed into the evidence room. He said when the Assistant District Attorney asks for the evidence for a particular case, the box is inventoried again, resealed, initialed and taken to the court room for use at trial.

Gibson said if any pieces of evidence are not used at the trial, they are boxed and returned to the Sheriff’s Office. He said he will inventory the contents for the items returned and the box is sealed and initialed. Gibson said all of the evidence which is utilized in a trail is stored in the judicial system’s evidence room.

When asked about disposal of evidence, Gibson said in murder cases where the perpetrator is sentenced to death, that evidence must be kept indefinitely. In a sexual assault case, the evidence must be kept until the offender is released. He said the reason for the evidence to be kept in a sexual assault case is in the event another victim should come forward.

With all other evidence, the Sheriff’s Office must submit a written disposition order to the District Attorney’s Office notifying of your intent to dispose of evidence. If the District Attorney approves of the disposal, the intent to dispose of evidence notice must then be presented to a Judge who must also agree to the disposal. If all parties are in agreement, then the proper disposal of evidence can take place.

Gibson said evidence gathering and storage techniques as well as laws pertaining to the procedures for evidence handling have changed a lot since the 1970s.

“Before we had evidence rooms, investigators kept the evidence themselves,” said Gibson. He explained that, in the 1970s, an investigator might store his evidence in the same locker with his uniform or it might have been in a file cabinet in his office or the trunk of his patrol car. When it was time for the case to go to trial, the investigator would simply go to the trunk of his patrol car or his work locker, and simply bring the evidence with him to court.

Gibson also said that in the 1970s disposing of evidence was also performed differently. If the evidence involved an item such a gun, the investigator had to obtain a disposition order. But, for many pieces of evidence, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“Back then, when you finished a murder case, you were done with it,” said Gibson. He said in the 1970s an investigator might take the evidence to the land fill and dispose of it once the trial was finished. Gibson said today, that is not the case. Evidence must preserved for a specific period of time following the trial before the process of disposing of it can take place.

Sheriff McVicker said they are also assisting other departments. He explained Gibson will be going to other police departments and conducting unannounced audits of their evidence rooms.

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