Possible ‘irregularities’ with Harnett County crime scene evidence

Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart
Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart

Harnett County leaders are investigating “potential irregularities” with the way the sheriff’s office has maintained records of crime scene evidence.

District Attorney Vernon Stewart warned defense lawyers Wednesday about potential problems but said he does not believe any evidence was tampered with or destroyed.

The revelation is the latest in a series of problems at the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office.

The News & Observer published a four-part series, “Deadly Force,” earlier this month about residents who say they have been harmed or harassed by deputies. Two men were killed by sheriff’s employees, including one man shot and killed by a Taser in the county jail. Others have been beaten, sprayed with pepper spray and shot with Tasers.

On Monday, the state NAACP called for the federal Department of Justice to conduct an extensive review of the sheriff’s office, urging investigators to conduct an inquiry similar to one recently completed in Ferguson, Mo. The department already is investigating at least two cases.

The county has hired former federal prosecutor and Raleigh lawyer Dan Boyce to help evaluate allegations of misconduct within the department. Boyce’s team will work with federal officials in their inquiry, as well as conduct an independent assessment of the agency.

In a statement, Jim Burgin, chairman of the Harnett County Board of Commissioners, said the county is committed to taking the federal inquiry seriously.

“Our overall goal is to address this situation in such a way that no matter the outcome, the public has full confidence in Harnett County and in the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office,” Burgin said.

The scope and nature of the evidence room problems were unclear Wednesday. Evidence rooms at local law enforcement agencies are used to collect, store and transfer evidence, including weapons used in crimes, drugs seized during an arrest, fingerprints collected from break-ins or samples of DNA evidence.

Stewart urged defense lawyers to bring concerns about their pending cases to his attention.

Evidence seized in criminal investigators must be properly handled and stored. Officers must document “chain of custody” of all evidence to track how, when and by whom the evidence is handled. These logs are required by law and are critical in helping lawyers determine if the evidence such as firearms or drugs or suspect fingerprints are handled in a way that preserves the integrity of the items.

“Documentation is really important because that’s what lets you know the evidence was handled properly,” said Thomas Maher, executive director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, the state agency in charge of supplying legal representation to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Even if the evidence has not been altered or disturbed, Maher said, any suggestion that there are problems with it could undermine jurors’ trust in the law enforcement and prosecutors.

“If jurors hear the evidence wasn’t handled properly, even if it’s innocuous, they may not trust the evidence at all,” Maher said.

Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews