Bad blood

Attorney accuses state crime lab of sloppy evidence policy



A Helena attorney, representing a man he acknowledges is “an unsympathetic character,” wants a new trial for his client because he says important DNA evidence in the case was never made available to the defense until after the man had been convicted and sentenced.

Public defender Chad Wright says the evidence chain of command in his client’s case was poorly handled by state and local authorities. DNA evidence was turned over to the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office by the state crime lab in 1994, but Wright only received it last March. Those DNA results contradict the blood type evidence that helped convict his client, Vance Pope, seven years ago.

Pope was one of two defendants charged with kidnapping and rape. The other defendant pleaded guilty, but Pope went to trial. He was convicted by a Missoula jury in 1994 and sentenced to the state prison at Deer Lodge, where he is currently serving a 30-year term.

Three to four months before Pope’s trial, the attorney for Pope’s co-defendant requested DNA testing. Testing was conducted from swabs and biological material taking from the victim’s clothing. The DNA did not identify Pope, though the blood evidence did. Wright says that the DNA evidence may identify a third, unknown person.

More importantly, says Wright, neither the crime lab nor the prosecutor made the DNA evidence known to the defense at trial. He also charges the state crime lab with working for the prosecution and the police, despite the lab’s own assertions that it is an independent body that objectively analyzes evidence, taking no sides for either defense or prosecution. The DNA was analyzed by Cell Mark, a DNA lab on the East Coast, and the same lab that analyzed DNA evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial. In Pope’s case, the DNA analysis report first surfaced a month after his sentencing, but only came into Wright’s possession for the first time last March.

Wright presented his argument for a new trial last month in Missoula County District Court where the prosecutor in the case admitted that the state had lost the seven-year-old DNA evidence, Wright says. The prosecutor in the case, Kristen LaCroix, was unavailable for comment.

Wright’s expert witness at this month’s hearing was a former crime lab DNA expert who was on staff in 1994, the time of Pope’s trial. He testified that the DNA evidence was more reliable than the blood evidence, and directly contradicted the blood evidence theory presented by the prosecution at trial. Despite DNA evidence that failed to identify Pope, the state told the jury that the blood evidence singled out Pope as the rapist. That, says Wright, can’t be squared with the DNA evidence that was available but not presented at trial.

Under state law the prosecution has a duty to make all information and evidence in its possession available to the defense before trial. But the prosecutor’s duty doesn’t end there. After a conviction, the prosecutor is bound by ethics to inform the defense of any evidence or information that casts doubt on the conviction.

“The prosecution was under an affirmative obligation to disclose this evidence when it became known to the crime lab and turn it over to the defense,” Wright writes in his argument to the court. “It did not do so. It also failed to disclose this DNA evidence after a request for documents from Mr. Pope. The evidence was material to the conviction at trial…”

Wright says the DNA evidence was sent to the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, but never made it to the prosecutor. “That’s more my concern,” says Wright. “There’s no dispute about that. There were no records.”

He charges the state crime lab with handling evidence without clear policies. The crime lab, he says, is supposedly an independent body that analyzes evidence without taking sides, “but everyone knows the crime lab works for the state.”

Julie Long is the supervisor of the crime lab’s DNA section. When asked about Wright’s charges of evidence mishandling and lost evidence, she says, “That’s the allegation.”

The crime lab does, in fact, have a policy for handling evidence, though in Wright’s opinion it is inadequate. Simply put, all analyzed evidence is sent back to the requesting agency.

But in this case the requesting agency was the attorney for Pope’s co-defendant, and that attorney never received it.

“I guess that’s my point,” Wright says. “The sheriff’s office in this case received the DNA evidence and didn’t know what to do with it, I guess. It remained in the sheriff’s office. That’s what we could determine at the hearing.”

Long says it has been common practice for the crime lab to turn over analyzed evidence to the requesting agency since 1993.

Wright counters that crime lab analysts aren’t aware of what happens after evidence is analyzed and returned, and it’s that practice that can create confusion, as it did in the Pope case.

“It’s because of this policy that something like this happens,” he says. “Just making it to the sheriff’s office doesn’t cut it. Everybody gets to point the finger at everybody else.”

Wright suggests that a new trial won’t necessarily exonerate his client, but will allow all the evidence to be presented. “It’s not one of these cases where we say this (evidence) excludes him and that he should go free.” The court has yet to rule on whether Pope will be granted a new trial.


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