One of the most bizarre and troubling developments in any criminal case in memory is playing out in Erie County this week. The good news is that some preliminary answers should not be difficult to produce. After that, things are liable to get even stranger.
The shocking incident is the delivery of what has been identified as a bag used to store evidence in the investigation of a sexual assault claim made against Chicago Blackhawks right winger Patrick Kane. The bag was left at the home of the mother of the woman who has accused Kane of assault, and that woman’s private lawyer, Thomas J. Eoannou, says he has verified that the bag is legitimate. It included identifying information about his client, he said, though none of the evidence that had been gathered.
Yet, police officials in Hamburg, where Kane lives and where the woman says the assault occurred, insisted the evidence they gathered has been properly handled, remains intact and is properly stored. The Erie County Commissioner of Central Police Services also says proper procedures were followed and that all of the evidence is accounted for.
Someone is wrong. Someone may even have committed a crime. That’s the aspect of this matter that could take some time to unravel, but the legitimacy of either evidence bag should not be difficult to ascertain. If both are official evidence bags, then additional questions arise.
The least sinister explanation is that someone is playing a prank. It would be a revolting prank, preying on the reputations and stress levels of both Kane and his accuser, but it might not involve any official misconduct. Assuming Eoannou is correct, though, and that he has in fact confirmed that the bag is legitimate, the possibility that this is some kind of sick joke seems extremely unlikely.
As Eoannou said, that would call into serious question the legitimacy of the evidence in a high-profile case involving the allegation of a violent crime. If the chain of custody had been broken, or if someone created a second evidence bag for unknown – but plainly suspicious – reasons, virtually all evidence would become suspect.
This much is true: The appearance of the evidence bag raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III has pledged an investigation, though it was unclear who would conduct it. Eoannou, not unreasonably, suggested that the FBI or State Police should take the lead.
It’s hard to imagine who had access to the evidence and would find benefit from tampering with it and, likely, falsifying the chain of custody that is legally required to document the security of the evidence. If someone did, though, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be found out before long.
What this means to the investigation and potential prosecution of the allegation, itself, is at least as troubling as the potential tampering. A woman says Kane raped her. Kane says he will be absolved of wrongdoing. Again, someone is wrong. One person’s reputation could be irreparably damaged, but securing the other’s has just been made vastly more difficult.
In at least two instances, someone has committed a terrible act. The question of whether an assault occurred needs to be answered, and the multiple questions surrounding the appearance of the evidence bag also have to be resolved. That is true for obvious reasons but also because a third reputation is now in the mix: that of the judicial system’s ability to secure the evidence that is fundamental to the dispensing of justice.