Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 18, 2015

DA’s cold case unit discovers unprocessed homicide evidence

District Attorney General Neal Pinkston looks through evidence collected from autopsies that has been stored untouched in the Medical Examiner’s Office for up to 30 years. - (Photo by David Laprad)

Unprocessed evidence collected from an undetermined number of autopsies has been stored untouched in the Medical Examiner’s Office for up to 30 years, the Hamilton County District Attorney’s office recently learned. District Attorney General Neal Pinkston believes a significant number of these cases to be previously prosecuted homicides.

While working on a cold case, the Pinkston’s cold case unit learned an employee of the medical examiner’s office had discovered unanalyzed evidence from a substantial number of homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths spanning the years 1986-2002. An initial review of the 1986-1988 autopsy files revealed 35 cases with unanalyzed evidence. Of those, 13 are suicides or accidental deaths, two are cold case murders, and the remaining 20 are homicides that have presumably been prosecuted. The full scope of the problem is not yet known, and ensuring the evidence is properly inventoried will be a tedious process, Pinkston’s office said in a press release.

Evidence such as bullets removed from bodies, fingernail clippings, hair, and DNA swabs are put in small envelopes and labeled with an ME (medical examiner) intake number, which is assigned as a body arrives at the medical examiner’s office. For each case, someone will have to pull the corresponding autopsy report and the original incident report to determine the victim’s name and which law enforcement agency worked the death investigation. (Normally, someone from the medical examiner’s office would do this, but the staff there has no one to spare, so Pinkston’s office is exploring its options.)

For each homicide case, the law enforcement agency will then have to review the investigative file to determine the suspect’s name. That information must then be relayed to Pinkston’s office so it can search for the defendant’s court file and then notify the defendant and the judge who originally handled the case (or his or her successor). If the homicide has not been prosecuted, Pinkston’s cold case unit will have to ensure the evidence is sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. 

Tennessee Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct rule 3:8 requires “prosecutors who learn of new, credible, and material evidence” to “undertake further investigation, or make reasonable efforts to cause an investigation, to determine whether the defendant was convicted of an offense that the defendant did not commit.”

To ensure the right conclusion was reached in the prosecuted homicides, Pinkston will create an external oversight committee to supervise the inventory and review of unprocessed evidence. The sitting Criminal Court judges have offered their recommendations for who should be appointed to the committee, which will be comprised of a judge, a defense attorney, a civil rights advocate, and a law professor.

The DA’s office said the committee should be appointed by Jan. 15, at which time Pinkston will provide the members with a proposal for conducting the inventory of the evidence. Responses from the committee members will be used to finalize the protocol that will be followed to account for all of the unprocessed evidence. “We anticipate the inventory process will be lengthy but are hopeful it will be completed by the end of 2016,” said Pinkston.

Source: Hamilton County District Attorney’s office