Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said he is committed to finding money to implement improvements to the city police department’s evidence room recommended in a new report by an outside firm.
But the mayor disagreed with criticism over the weekend by defense attorneys who said the scathing audit, publicly released Friday, indicates broader issues with evidence-handling practices that could compromise future cases. Webber also insisted the police department had been addressing the evidence issues long before they hampered prosecution of a high-profile homicide case in June.
“Nobody’s pretending we don’t need to change how the evidence room and the process works and bring it up to best practices,” Webber said in an interview Monday.
The audit report by Washington state-based SCS Northwest Consulting Services LLC — conducted as part of an evidence room accreditation process — listed 37 problems with staffing levels and practices for storing and handling evidence.
An April 2019 letter from the firm to Santa Fe police Lt. Sean Strahan outlines the audit procedures and said the fee for Stephen Campbell of SCS Northwest to review the department’s evidence unit was $2,500.
In June, evidence issues were made public when the department sent a letter to the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office saying it had lost 11 key pieces of evidence in the 2017 fatal stabbing of 21-year-old Selena Valencia.
Her boyfriend, Christopher Garcia, 28, had faced a count of murder and other charges, but the missing evidence raised questions about whether the state could proceed with prosecution.
A state district judge ordered an audit of evidence in the case in August. A Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office crime scene technician who conducted the audit found the police department had failed to follow 14 of its own evidence-handling policies and procedures.
Ultimately, prosecutors decided to allow Garcia to plead no contest to one charge of voluntary manslaughter and two counts each of tampering with evidence and drug possession. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison as part of the deal.
In another case affected by the department’s evidence-handling practices, Wacey Chico, accused of nearly disemboweling a homeless man with a machete in 2017 at Fort Marcy Park, was acquitted last month on a charge of attempted second-degree murder. His defense attorney said police lost some of the victim’s clothing and sent only four of the 50 blood samples collected at the scene for DNA testing.
When asked why concerns about the police department’s evidence room did not come to light before the Valencia case, Webber offered this explanation: “It’s a little bit like: ‘Have you stopped beating your wife yet? Why didn’t you talk about something before you talked about it?’
“Our team was working on this project,” he said. “They recognized it had been left too long, and they began to take steps to address it. I don’t know that there’s a public conversation required for that.”
In response to concerns raised by defense attorneys and state Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur about how the new audit’s findings might affect future cases, Webber said, “If I’m a defense attorney, my attempt is to defend my client. ... So if I was a defense attorney, I would do what they’re doing. It makes common sense. It doesn’t mean it is in the public’s interest to begin to cast aspersions on all of our evidence.”
In a statement Monday, Baur reiterated his concerns. “The audit confirmed a systemic problem with the evidence room, and until we know the full extent of it, it’s our job to question the reliability of any evidence that was held there and used against our clients,” he said.
District Attorney Marco Serna did not respond to questions about the possible effect of evidence room issues on prosecution of future cases.
Santa Fe police Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said if public defenders are concerned about evidence in any particular cases, they can request a review.
“We still have confidence in the evidence we have,” Valdez said.
Campbell, of SCS Northwest, said the police department “has got work to do. They’ve got homework to do to bring them up to standards.”
But he said he felt confident the evidence team would successfully implement reforms under the leadership of Lt. Strahan, who is the evidence room project manager.
Among the improvements Campbell recommended was quality evidence-tracking software, which he said costs in the range of $25,000.
Valdez said he expects the department to make a request for software in the next couple of weeks. Using barcoding procedures to log, sort and track evidence would be “light years ahead of the software we have now,” he said.
When the new system is installed, he added, he plans to catalog the department’s entire inventory.
Other immediate budget priorities are training and hiring additional staff, Webber said, adding that the city will not ask for state or federal dollars to make the changes.
“We’re going to find new money, because this is a priority,” he said.