When bad things happen in Oakland, Rachelle Vinson winds up with the proof. Vinson is the property supervisor for the Oakland Police Department, and her basement warehouse is packed from floor to sixteen-foot ceiling with the detritus of Oaklanders' most felonious moments. Her office is the final resting place for countless samples of blood, bone, hair, and tissue, for thousands of weapons and the narcotics, jewelry, and currency that may have been used to obtain them, for the tattered clothing and personal effects of those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tiny and ponytailed, Vinson hardly looks like the curator for a hall of horrors, but after twenty years on the job, she regards the parade of grotesqueries that pass through her supervision with the dry demeanor of one who can no longer be surprised. As she puts it, "Whatever you can imagine, you can't."
Vinson's property room is the last stop evidence makes as it travels through Oakland's police system. Some has been on the shelves for decades; Vinson still maintains materials from unsolved homicides that go all the way back to 1954. And more arrives every day. With each passing year the criminal justice system relies more heavily on the DNA clues extracted from evidence to clinch cases, and legislators keep passing laws that require evidence to be preserved for longer periods of time. Within the last two years alone, the legislature has increased the statute of limitations for sexual assaults, expanded the list of crimes for which DNA samples must be taken, and allowed convicted felons to request DNA tests to exonerate themselves. All of this means that evidence, including fragile biological evidence such as blood and other fluids, must be kept in pristine condition for increasingly long periods of time, awaiting the day when, years or even decades down the line, it may be called back to the lab or court to determine who goes free or to jail.
The extraordinarily long period for which evidence must now be stored raises some troubling questions: What about contamination, or what if it simply degrades with age? After all, genetic analysis is such a relatively new science that nobody's even sure what the usable shelf-life of DNA might be. And with such a huge amount of data to process, law enforcement agencies face an uphill battle to get the data from new crimes analyzed on time, not to mention the evidence from cases that have been sitting in the basement for years.
Although California's Department of Justice has made enormous strides catching up its once-shameful backlog of unprocessed DNA samples, local police departments such as the OPD are still struggling to wade through hundreds of unsolved cases. It's serious business; such samples can send dangerous criminals to prison or exonerate the unjustly accused. Vinson's basement, and dozens of other California property rooms just like it, is the place where the idea that no evidence should be thrown away until the last appeal is exhausted smacks up against the limitations of the physical world, where freezer space is expensive and eventually you run out of shelves. "It's crowded," says Vinson of the basement, "and it's only gotten crowdeder." She pauses, looking around at the towers of neatly marked boxes of evidence that stretch far above her head. "That's not a real word. More crowded. Lots of crowded. Too much crowding. Overcrowded."
But the OPD's storage problem is not simply a matter of needing to find a bigger storage space -- it's indicative of a whole system of evidence collection and analysis that is becoming dangerously overextended.Every day, evidence technicians such as Lee Smith rove the city in their black-and-white vans, waiting to be called to crime scenes where they will bag and tag the physical proof of man's inhumanity to man. As he drives to his first crime scene of the week, Smith's van is full of equipment that clatters in the back: Fingerprint lift cards and their accompanying envelopes; brown paper lunch bags and grocery bags for wrapping clothing and firearms; empty film canisters for packaging shell casings and expended slugs; report forms; disposable latex gloves; a tool box full of screwdrivers, saw blades, and pry bars; a fingerprint kit; cameras; and film. Although the broad outlines of an evidence tech's job have changed little over the years -- dusting for fingerprints, collecting blood and other samples, taking photographs, and drawing diagrams -- the precision with which evidence can be analyzed has increased tremendously. The growing sensitivity of crime scene science means that techs have a tougher job to do. An errant sneeze, an ungloved hand, or sloppy packaging can render a sample useless. If a defense attorney can argue that evidence has been tainted or tampered with, or if it ever strayed from the chain of custody, techs might as well give the suspect a get-out-of-jail-free card. Property and evidence folks still wince when someone says "O.J."
Smith has been an evidence technician for seventeen years, and he's built a reputation as deliberate and thoughtful. As with most of the crime scenes he visits, all Smith knows about this one comes from the terse police code that came over the radio. "It was originally coded as an assault, now with a deadly weapon, so it could be anything," he says. "And the officer has already requested the district sergeant, which is an indication of the level of severity." When he rolls up to the scene -- an apartment complex near downtown Oakland -- five squad cars, two ambulances, and a fire truck already are there. Before his van is even in park, Smith grabs a camera from behind his seat and, as soon as the vehicle stops moving, he flies from the driver's seat. Inside one of the ambulances, paramedics are cutting the jeans off of a thin, pale man lying motionless on a gurney; Smith vaults inside and begins snapping pictures of the man's injuries. Head trauma and an injured hand, he reports, emerging before the ambulance speeds away. He pops a few photos of the building, then crowds into an elevator full of police and shaken residents.
Inside, it's hard not to overhear people's theories about the assault, but like most techs, Smith would prefer to scan the scene first before formulating his own. Unlike regular officers, evidence techs usually don't conduct interviews with witnesses, and some assiduously avoid them. After all, memory is faulty. "Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, that's not what happened," agrees Smith's boss, Officer Dan Hutchinson, coordinator of the evidence technical detail, who has joined the crowd in the hallway. "I would rather go out and look at the scene and the physical evidence, and I don't even want to know what they say because it may prejudice my thinking. People will make mistakes, people will lie intentionally, but the evidence isn't going to lie."
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