Destroying evidence in Ronnie Rhodes‘ case might have been against Wichita Police Department policy — if it had one.
“We have no policy in our very thick policy and procedural manual that states how long evidence will be kept,” said Tom Stolz, deputy chief of the WPD investigations division. “We go into great detail about how to collect it and where it goes and how to preserve it. But we have no policy that talks about how long you have to keep it.”
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s office, meanwhile, has a detailed written policy for retaining evidence, based on a state law requiring a court order.
Such discrepancies between agencies illustrate why 33 states have passed laws mandating how long evidence should be kept.
Kansas isn’t one of them.
“Preservation laws seek to provide uniform guidance to all agencies charged with the retention of biological evidence, said Rebecca Brown, senior policy advocate for state affairs at The Innocence Project in New York.
Stolz said Wichita police follow “unwritten rules” on how long to keep evidience, which may have changed over time.
Rhodes went to prison in 1981 for Wichita murder he maintains he didn’t commit. His case came to light again after he asked for DNA testing of evidence, and it couldn’t be located. DNA testing wasn’t available during his original trial.
Students at the Washburn School of Law have since questioned the strength of the evidence that convicted Rhodes, the adequacy of his legal representation and the reasoning behind appeal and parole decisions that have kept him incarcerated.
While working with the law class, the Eagle learned most — if not all — of the physical evidence in the stabbing death of Cleother Burrell had been destroyed, despite the apparent absence of a required court order
No one currently at the WPD worked on the Rhodes case, and Stolz said the department has kept evidence from even older convictions.
“We’ve got homicide stuff from the ‘50s,’ Stolz said. “We’ve kept that essentially forever.”
While Stolz doesn’t know what the practice was in the 1980s, he said evidence in some cases was destroyed after the prosecution had been completed and the appeals exhausted.
“We had no clue at that time that DNA was going to become as viable as it has for evidence,” Stolz said. “So now … maybe we should keep stuff longer, because you never know in 20 years what the science is going to be. And once you destroy it, it’s gone forever.”
In 1989, two U.S. men were exonerated by DNA evidence. By 1992, the genetic testing of old biological material had shown 10 men were innocent of the crimes that sent them to prison.
“In the early 1990s, … people in prison, 20, 25, 30 years, we’re resurrecting DNA evidence and their appeal becomes viable. So now, we keep everything.”
Stolz said he’s assigned Lt. Ken Landwehr, head of the homicide unit, to study what other cities do and to come up with a policy for how long to retain evidence. Stoltz said the department is considering keeping biological evidence in murder cases for the life of the defendant.
More than 250 people have been found not guilty through DNA evidence, after being locked up, on average more than a dozen years. Criminologists say they have no way of knowing how many others remain in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, because evidence no longer exists.
Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied the reasons behind wrongful convictions says its not uncommon to see policies differ between law enforcement agencies.
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s office has “a considerable written policy” on keeping and destroying evidence, said Capt. Terry Parham.
“We don’t destroy evidence unless we have a valid court order that has been reviewed by both the county attorney’s office and the district attorneys office,” said Parham, commander of the sheriff’s support services division.
That does not include evidence in homicide cases, which Parham said is never destroyed.
Ann Swegle, deputy district attorney for Sedgwick County, said that office supports keeping evidence in serious cases, such as rapes and murders, for “as long as they have evidentiary value, even after appeals are exhausted.”
Swegle said most of the time, she’s found Wichita police practices effective.
No court orders have turned up in concerning purging of evidence in the Rhodes case.
Stolz said he doesn’t know why Rhodes’ evidence was destroyed.
“Why would you ever in a homicide case destroy anything? It’s a good question,” he said.
“We surely don’t want to convict wrong people,” Stolz added. “Nobody is in the business of doing that.”