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.

(8) comments

Suzi Doerhoff

Good morning! I wanted to assure the readers that Steve Campbell is one of the best evidence management experts with many years of experience. The department should be commended for bringing in an expert to assess their evidence handling practices. To be transparent with the results, knowing that it would bring public concern is also commendable. I have worked with many agencies that needed corrective measures following an audit. This is a starting point for bringing evidence management in line with professional standards. I am confident that SFPD will follow-through with taking the corrective actions required.

kyle renfro

to honestly think that Valdez and Padilla are going to straighten out the mess is ludicrous, if they had the ability it would never have gotten to this point in the first place. And to think that if the evidence room is this bad, what shape is the rest of the department in. The entire department should be audited for training, vehicle maintenance, storage of officer videos, etc. They put these little uneducated kids in charge and expect them to run this highly complex organization and the mayor wont dismiss them simply because he doesn't want egg on his face. And now they want to run the red light camera program.

Chris Mechels

The article says the SFPD "released" the audit report. Where is it?? Why don't they post in on the SFPD web site? Why doesn't the SF New Mexican post it? What's with all the secrecy?

Rachel Thompson

I think the same thing. it’s paid for with public dollar so it should be a public document. It’s also funny that they released it on a Friday night. Just like Washington DC! And really, did it require a consultant to come and look at those same photographs to decide that the room was at my house? This seems to be a case of people simply not wanting to do their jobs unless they are called out on the carpet. I also doubt very much that some piece of software is the answer. Who will help set it up? Who will train people on it? I think the problem is a culture of not caring and not being accountable. Truly, did no one think it was strange that there was some basket full of guns sitting out in the open?

Rachel Thompson

There are typos in what I wrote but I don’t know how to correct them.

Jeff Hayduke

Deputy Chief Ben Valdez’s plan for in house auditing is concerning considering how messed up they have already been. Hiring an outside party would likely be more expeditious than the slow and bureaucratic government style of work. The police cannot be trusted to police themselves. Thanks SFNM for reporting on this. All over police need to work on their public image and this story reinforces the stereotypes that police are often stupid while journalists are typically smart. But, police can and should work to improve their public perception and worthiness of trust.

Chris Mechels

There is an apt saying in management which goes, "Feed Success, Starve Failure". This of course means you reward success, and get more success. If you reward failure, you can only hope for success. SFPD, and Webber, now propose to feed failure, by giving more funds to the very clowns who failed. This is insane. IF you are going to apply more funds, FIRST remove the clowns who caused the failure. Isn't this obvious?? It seems not. We can look forward to more failure, cloaked by a lot of PR, the Webber style. BTW, why haven't we hired a new, capable, City Manager?? who, unlike Webber, is, actually a manager.

Rachel Thompson

I wouldn’t let these folks do anything in the house. I am also wishing to learn or about the consultants qualifications and whether he is up-to-date on best practices. I thought I read in the first article that he was hired in late summer-ish and came and did his research. I’m honestly surprised the bill was so low, but I’m wondering why it took so long for him to produce the report? I agree that the inventory of the rape kits Hass to happen immediately. But again, I don’t trust the existing people to do that properly. The state of the evidence from in general shows a lack of care, I think.

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