Attorneys say a scathing report that found dozens of issues with the Santa Fe Police Department’s handling and storage of evidence is just the beginning.
The department released the report Friday from a public safety consultant, more than six months after the agency told the District Attorney’s Office that it lost evidence in a first-degree murder case.
“The problem is we still don’t know how many cases are affected,” said Jennifer Burrill, a public defender and vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “All we know is that it’s a mess.”
Burrill said she was frustrated but not surprised by the findings and said the review has to go further.
“In the past, [the department] said they would audit evidence on a case-by-case basis. But honestly, until we have every single case gone through, I don’t think we’re going to be able to rely on any evidence stored in that room,” she said.
Stephen Campbell, a retired police chief and owner of SCS Northwest Consulting Services LLC, reviewed the department’s main evidence room, vaults for narcotics and firearms, two packaging areas and a long-term storage space.
Campbell audited two randomly selected cases. While he found evidence for a 2008 homicide case, which was properly logged, evidence for the second case, a sexual assault from 2015, “could not be located after a prolonged search,” the report states.
His recommendation was that “all sexual assault cases need to be audited and accounted for immediately.”
He also found that 40 percent of inventory for misdemeanor cases should be disposed because it was held past the statute of limitations.
Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said the report shows that police and prosecution practices have to be challenged around the state.
“This review was only done because of questions raised by a public defender,” Baur said in an email. “If that doesn’t happen, innocent people will continue to be falsely charged and convicted, and people who should be held accountable may not be.”
Issues with the evidence room came to light after the department discovered it lost evidence in the 2017 Selena Valencia murder case. Her boyfriend, Christopher Garcia, was accused of fatally stabbing her. In June 2019, the police department sent a letter to the District Attorney’s Office, saying it had lost 11 pieces of evidence, including fingernail clippings and traces of hair found on Valencia.
Because of the lost evidence, prosecutors decided not to take Garcia to trial. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading no contest to one charge of voluntary manslaughter and two counts each of tampering with evidence and drug possession.
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, a former court clerk, said she was concerned with how the findings would impact not just victims, but the system as a whole.
“I felt really bad for the crime scene technicians and the detectives who spent all that time meticulously collecting evidence — all for what?” she said.
Vigil Coppler said she appreciated the department’s willingness to seek a review, but she was also disappointed.
“This is what police departments are supposed to be doing. This is a cornerstone of police work,” she said. “It should have been paramount.”
Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said an inventory and audit of the sexual assault kits in the department’s evidence room will be done in house.
“The process of hiring an outside firm would delay the inventory of [kits] and this recommendation is a priority we need to address immediately,” he said Saturday.
He also has said the department will buy evidence management software, replace locks and keys to controlled access areas and request funding to add four positions.
While it’s uncertain how much the changes will cost, police have said the total could be thousands of dollars.
“This is a very important thing we have to take care of,” City Councilor Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez said. “We haven’t moved into budget season yet, but I feel like this is something we need to prioritize.”
Spokesman Henry Varela said the District Attorney’s Office could not comment because it had not yet read the report.