Lawyer: Centreville police burned evidence; will 1989 murder case be thrown out?

News-DemocratFebruary 1, 2014 

A defense attorney wants the murder charge against his client dismissed because the Centreville Police Department kept its evidence so poorly and once burned evidence that possibly could have affected the case.

Thomas Q. Keefe III said the department failed to take reasonable measures to protect evidence in criminal cases and the murder case against his client, Carlos Garrett, should be dismissed.

Garrett is accused of killing 16-year-old Nicole Willis in 1989.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly declined to comment specifically on Garrett's case because the case is pending.

In a motion filed in Garrett's case, Keefe alleged that Centreville Police:

* Failed to keep a log that recorded who had access to evidence and when.

* Failed to have a written policy regarding the evidence room.

* Allowed dispatchers, janitors and maintenance personnel to check in evidence.

* Kept a key to evidence hanging next to the temporary storage locker.

* Allowed access to evidence, including officers who were later convicted of federal crimes. Former assistant police chief Corey Allen is serving a two-year prison sentence for lying to a federal agent. Former police detective Michael Baxton was sentenced to serve a year in prison after admitting that he took four Xbox 360 game consoles out of a car during a federal sting operation. Both had a key to the evidence room, Keefe said.

And when the permanent locker needed cleaning out, Keefe said the then-chief threw everything that wasn't marked into a barrel and burned it.

"Respectfully, for decades the Centreville evidence room was a shambles, there were no bins for organization, and no labeling to speak of," Keefe stated in the motion. "There were no records of what was stored where and when and no practice or policy setting forth how evidence (should) be stored together. But, on the plus side ... none of it was willfully destroyed. That changed in 2012."

Keefe alleged then-Centreville detective James Mister removed everything from the evidence room and burned the items that were not labeled with a case.

Mister, now the Washington Park Police Chief, could not be reached for comment.

Willis' body was found in an empty lot at 215 N. 69th St. Willis had been raped and beaten.

The case went unsolved for more than two decades until Garrett was convicted in a Montgomery County drug case. As part of that conviction, Garrett was required to submit his DNA to a database.

DNA had been recovered from under Willis' fingernails and there was a match.

Prosecutors then charged Garrett, 51, with first-degree murder.

But with so many people having access to the temporary evidence locker, the number of keys out for the permanent locker and no log to see who took out what evidence when, contamination of evidence is a real possibility, Keefe said. So, he's asking a judge to toss the DNA evidence, then dismiss the case.

"Since this murder occurred, there have been hundreds of tips, a couple of renewed efforts to solve this," Keefe said. "During this time, Carlos Garrett's name never came up. He has maintained his innocence since police first interviewed him."

Among that items that might have been destroyed in the burn barrel behind the police department was a hat and a hair found under Willis' body, Keefe said. The hat and hair are noted in a police report, but could not be found in the evidence locker.

"That could have been exculpatory evidence," Keefe said.

Keefe will ask St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse to suppress the evidence because police and prosecutors can't show that it is improbable that the evidence was compromised.

If Cruse doesn't make that finding, Keefe can ask every person with access to the evidence room to testify and prosecutors must exclude every possibility of tampering or contamination.

Keefe further asked if Cruse suppresses the DNA evidence, that she dismiss the case against Garrett, who has been in jail since he was charged in 2012.

Though the motion was filed in Garrett's case, Keefe said the ruling could have bearing on every case with evidence stored at the Centreville Police Department.

While Kelly declined to comment about a specific case, he did remark about the allegations about the Centreville Police Department and the improvements made by current Chief Steve Brown.

"It's no secret because of decades of mismanagement in some departments, we are often fight for justice with one hand tied behind our back but that doesn't mean we aren't going to fight," Kelly said.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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