Aurora Police Department Chief Dan Oates didn't mince words when it came to the characterizing the decision to toss out DNA evidence in 48 sexual assault cases from 2009 -- including one cold case that had just scored a database match.
"Occasionally in policing, organizations screw up," he said at a highly unusual 7:30 p.m. news conference last night. "We certainly screwed up in this case."
What happened? And is there anything to be done?
The aforementioned DNA match was found two weeks ago, after which a detective looking for the evidence found it gone -- along with plenty of other similar material.
Given this time frame, why was the information divulged during an evening news conference -- the sort of event that tends not to happen unless it concerns a breaking criminal incident? Had a news organization learned about the botch and the APD had to hurry to reveal the error first? Hard to say -- but in a press release issued in the minutes before Oates took to the podium at the jury assembly room of the Aurora Municipal Court, the department attempted to put the mishap in a less damaging context even while admitting that a tragic gaffe had taken place.
The release notes that each year, the APD collects approximately 50,000 pieces of evidence and property -- and to make room for the new stuff, a like amount of past items must be destroyed or disposed of. But there are strict rules for this process, which were tightened by House Bill 211, a 2009 law on view below about the preservation of DNA evidence.
In the wake of the bill's signing, the department reportedly adopted policies to "ensure compliance with the new law." But recently, something went terribly awry. An investigation subsequently revealed that evidence, including DNA, involved in 48 alleged sex-assault cases had been tossed. In eighteen of those instances, detectives had recommended that the evidence be discarded, although such a declaration was only supposed to be the first step in the procedure, not an immediate edict. And for the other thirty cases, no such recommendation had been made.
Who did the destroying? The APD hasn't released the individual's name, but he or she is said to be "an injured officer assigned to light duty in the Property and Evidence Unit."
Moreover, the department concedes that because the inquiry into this botch is in its early stages, other evidence in cases aside from the 48 found so far could have been swept away.
At the press conference, Oates, who earned national notoriety (and some unwanted attention) in the wake of last year's Aurora theater shooting, said he's ordered that no other DNA be destroyed until the problem is fully evaluated and it's determined if the issue goes beyond a single officer who didn't follow protocol.
Additionally, Oates has asked for "an expert panel" to review the situation and offer its advice. Although APD Deputy Chief Terry Jones will chair the group, and department Commander Fran Gomez is slated to participate, it will also feature individuals beyond the department, including Senior Assistant Attorney General Julie Selsberg, a DNA expert assigned by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, plus retired Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers, Colorado State University Chief of Police Wendy Rich-Goldschmidt, 18th Judicial District Deputy DA Ann Tomsic and a thus-far unnamed senior assistant from the 17th Judicial District.
The panel will offer its conclusions by November 1 -- but the damage is more immediate. At the very least, 48 possible sex-assault cases will not be prosecuted, including one that a DNA match may have made a slam dunk. In other words, potentially dozens of rapists will remain free to abuse and terrorize again.
Last night, Oates told the gathered media that he'd met personally with the victim in the DNA-match case, and she was more understanding than he would have been under the circumstances. But everyone agrees she should never have been put in this position.
Here's a 7News report about the press conference, followed by the law about preservation of DNA evidence.