Santa Fe Police and city residents know what is wrong with the evidence room — it’s a mess.
For too many years, evidence has been logged and stored improperly. Evidence in misdemeanor cases has been kept after the statute of limitations makes prosecution impossible. Evidence for sexual assaults, a problem in departments across the state because of a backlog of untested rape kits, also is in disarray.
The room has to be reorganized, some evidence tossed and a better system created for logging cases and ensuring that nothing is lost.
For Mayor Alan Webber — ultimately the guy in charge — this is one more area of city government he must put to rights. The problems in the evidence room date back years, so it would be unfair to blame Webber’s administration. We will blame him and Chief Andrew Padilla if the problem is not fixed quickly. Updates about changes and improvements will be welcome and necessary.
For progress to occur, the city says it is going to find more money to hire additional people to work the evidence room; they’ll be charged with cleaning out clutter and setting up better systems going forward. There also will need to be updates in evidence management software and such basic changes as replacing locks and keys. This is not going to be inexpensive, with the search for funding happening midway through a budget year. But finding the money to fix this problem is essential.
First up will be an audit of sexual assault kits — it’s going to be done in house so it happens immediately. Given the sloppy handling of evidence in the past, the police must share its process and findings as it cleans up the room.
Right now, there is little public trust in the department’s ability to handle evidence. Deservedly so.
Problems in the evidence case came to public attention when the department realized it had misplaced evidence in the 2017 Selena Valencia murder case. A boyfriend, Christopher Garcia, was accused of stabbing her to death. However, in June 2019, police sent a letter to the District Attorney’s Office, saying the department had lost 11 pieces of evidence, including fingernail clippings and hair traces found on Valencia.
Prosecutors refused to take the case to trial, resulting in a plea deal with Garcia. 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.
Even before that case, Webber said, the city had approached consultant Stephen Campbell, a retired police chief and owner of SCS Northwest Consulting Services LLC, to review practices in the evidence room.
His scathing report will be the basis of improving the handling and storage of evidence, a process that begins immediately. Even beyond those fixes, we agree with public defenders that attention needs to be focused on individual cases. Do random audits to make sure evidence is where it is supposed to be. Examine cases to make sure evidence is in place and ready for trial. Don’t allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to be tripped up at the last minute. The District Attorney’s Office, too, could be proactive and ask about important cases nearing trial.
We can only hope that the mess in the evidence room won’t mean that more criminals are let free or that innocent people suffer because proof that could free them was lost. Justice works when the system works, and right now evidence from the Santa Fe Police Department remains suspect. This is a blot on the department’s record, one that needs to be scrubbed. Immediately.