Retaining evidence at issue in battle for legislation

TRENTON – An advocacy group that works on behalf of wrongly convicted prisoners says New Jersey needs a uniform law

TRENTON – An advocacy group that works on behalf of wrongly convicted prisoners says New Jersey needs a uniform law to govern the storage of biological evidence so the rights of those prisoners are better protected.

But the attorney general’s office tells State Street Wire that there’s already an attorney general’s directive statewide covering evidence retention and that such a law is unnecessary.

A prisoner advocate told the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee yesterday that rules governing the handling of biological evidence after trial, including blood and semen or materials that could contain those and other materials, are observed on a “county-by-county basis.”

Ed Martone, director of public education and policy for the New Jersey Association on Correction, a corrections policy group, made the statement before the Assembly committee in an appearance there yesterday..

Martone is supporting legislation (A3994) that would require the state to come up with uniform rules governing evidence retention; including a provision that would require prosecutors and police to hold evidence for at least the duration of a prisoner’s incarceration.

He was joined by Rebecca Brown, a policy advocate for the New York-based Innocence Project, a national non-profit that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing.

A representative for the attorney general’s office told lawmakers the administration opposes the bill. “We do not support this bill at this time,” said B. Stephan Finkle, the director of legislative affairs for the office, without further explanation.

But a spokesman for the office today said the law is unnecessary.

“The attorney general issued a very detailed directive in January that provides flexibility where it’s needed,” Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the Department of Law and Public Safety, told State Street Wire. “We don’t feel that this bill is necessary.”

The attorney general’s “guidelines for the retention of evidence” are amended from a set of rules first issued in March, 2010. Signed by Attorney General Paula Dow, the January 6 directive to all police chiefs and prosecutors in the state is in part designed as a “clarification” of questions that had come up since the first one was issued, according to a memo from Dow that accompanies the guidelines.

But Martone and Brown said such a law is long past due because without it, the wrongly convicted can lose a shot at release that could be contained in DNA evidence that might otherwise be lost or discarded after trial.

“Is the stuff being thrown out now,” asked Gordon Johnson, the committee chairman.

“It happens,” Martone replied.

The bill would also require the attorney general to come up with a uniform system for collecting, storing and cataloging biological evidence.

The legislation would also require the agency responsible for storing evidence that couldn’t be located for trial to search for it again within 30 days of a written request and to respond in writing within 10 days of locating it. If the evidence can’t be located, then it would be required to describe the efforts taken to locate it.

The measure would also make it a disorderly persons offense for anyone who purposely tampered with or destroyed evidence, though one law enforcement source says there are already laws on the books that deal with evidence tampering.

Martone and Brown said there are millions of dollars in federal grants available to help implement the legislation, but only if there’s a state law governing evidence storage and that it’s preserved in cases of rape, manslaughter and murder.

The bill was released from committee on the strength of six votes from the panel’s Democrats. All three Republicans abstained.

  Retaining evidence at issue in battle for legislation