When evidence is collected during a rape investigation, a careful chain of custody is supposed to be maintained.
It starts with the nurse who collects samples of fluids and hair, and goes to the police officer who brings it to the lab, and to the forensic examiners who analyze the evidence for fingerprints and DNA.
But if the torn paper bag left at the front door of the mother of the woman who has accused pro hockey star Patrick Kane is truly an evidence bag that had been as part of the rape examination, something went terribly wrong.
“It is very concerning if any evidence was tampered with as it jeopardizes justice for both parties involved,” said Jessica C. Pirro, CEO of Crisis Services, which operates 24-hour rape and suicide hotlines and provides support services to rape survivors and other people in crisis situations.
“I have never seen anything like this.”
Crisis Services handles hundreds of sexual assault cases every year without anything like this happening, she said.
“It does call for a review of the process and auditing of the chain of custody to determine how it could have broken down,” Pirro said Wednesday. “This is a closed system, and someone choosing to violate this process has impacted a proper process and justice for all involved.”
Both Town of Hamburg police and Erie County Central Police Services said that all proper procedures were followed in handling evidence in the Kane investigation. CPS officials also said no evidence or packaging of evidence was missing.
The bizarre developments in the Kane investigation are troubling on many levels, Pirro said.
The case already has gained national attention because of Kane’s stature with the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks.
But the mysterious appearance of the bag, Pirro said, “shows they know who the victim’s family is and where they lived.” The Buffalo News is withholding the name of the victim and where her mother lives to protect the woman’s identity.
Pirro speculated that whoever left the bag is trying to send some sort of message.
“I think it was to highlight something is askew with the investigation, but it is hard to understand what that person was thinking by taking these actions,” she said.
So how is evidence supposed to be handled?
When someone goes to a hospital in Erie County to report being the victim of a sexual assault, the victim, male or female, is immediately taken to a private room, said Holly G. Franz, coordinator of Crisis Services’ Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner program, who explained the process for a previous News article about rape kits.
A nurse asks the victim questions about what happened during the alleged assault and then conducts the physical exam, during which evidence is collected using a rape kit. The kit is sealed in a white box that contains another sealed plastic bag that contains small envelopes and baggies to hold samples found on the victim’s body, which can include bodily fluids, hair and scrapings from under fingernails.
Each sample is documented and sealed inside the bags and envelopes and then put into the box.
The nurse often also collects articles of clothing, particularly underwear, which are placed into larger, heavy-gauge paper evidence bags, which can be sealed.
Sometimes the rape kit is put into such a bag.
It wasn’t clear Wednesday what exactly the bag left at the alleged victim’s mother’s house had held. But the woman’s attorney, Thomas J. Eoannou, said there was a label with her name on it and law enforcement and officials from Erie County Medical Center told him that it was collected during the rape exam.
Once the items are collected, a strict chain of custody is supposed to be maintained, a retired veteran police investigator explained.
“They are really strict with evidence. I can’t imagine anyone botching it,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not have authorization to discuss the case.
The evidence either stays with the nurse or goes into a specially designated evidence locker at the hospital until a police officer comes to retrieve it and brings it to the Erie County Forensic Crime Laboratory in Buffalo at the Public Safety Campus, 45 Elm St.
Then, the evidence, which can be in one bag, is placed into a secure locker with a form indicating what types of evidence are inside, said Joseph J. Marusak, a former prosecutor with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office who was at the news conference and provided technical insight to Eoannou.
A designated lab employee takes the evidence from the locker, and it is then logged into the actual lab to be assigned to a forensic examiner.
All along the way, everyone who handles the evidence must sign for it, and receipts are given whenever there is an exchange.
Current and former law enforcement officials familiar with the process say the very first action conducted by an examiner is to make sure that seals on evidence bags are secure and that there are no signs of tampering.
After the tests are completed, the evidence is placed back into the larger paper bag, resealed and initialed by the examiner, Marusak said.
The evidence is usually then returned to the investigating police agency.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said his office does not receive evidence until the time of trial.
The retired police officer said that it’s not inconceivable that a bag that had held evidence would be replaced with another one. But in most cases, the opened bag would be put inside the new one, along with the evidence.
In fact, the paper bag holding the evidence, Marusak said, is itself considered a piece of evidence that is sometimes shown at trial.
It seemed unlikely to the retired officer that someone wouldn’t have done that in such a high-profile case.
“You would think you’d want to dot your i’s and cross your t’s and follow everything,” he said.
Marusak said he’s never heard of an evidence bag turning up outside the hands of law enforcement:
“Never even remotely; this is a totally bizarre.”
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