St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse heard testimony on Tuesday about whether the fingernails trimmed from murder victim Nicole Willis were kept secure and whether police followed proper protocol in handling the evidence.
Who had access to those nails and how they were kept is important because on one of those fingernails of Willis' right hand, DNA was found that was used more than two decades later to charge Carlos Garrett, 52, in connection with the murder.
Willis, a 16-year-old Cahokia High School senior, was found naked, beaten and strangled in a field near her Centreville home on Oct. 4, 1989.
Thomas Q. Keefe III, Garrett's attorney, is asking the DNA evidence be thrown out and the case against Garrett dismissed.
Keefe argued Centreville police kept the sexual assault kit containing those pink-painted fingernails in a non-secure evidence locker where the evidence could have been tampered with or contaminated. He also argued that police failed to keep a log recording who had access to evidence and when.
Ali Summers, a special assistant state's attorney named to prosecute the case, countered in a written motion that there was no credible reason to believe that anyone tampered with the fingernails.
In the hearing Tuesday, Summers methodically detailed the collection of the fingernails in her questioning of Dr. Raj Nanduri, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy of Willis. She also played a videotaped deposition of former Illinois State Police Crime Scene Investigator William Brandon, who died in July. She also questions ISP forensic scientist Michael Brown, who received the evidence at the state police lab in 1989, who detailed the process of logging in and securing evidence to maintain the chain of custody.
Under cross-examination from Keefe, Brown stated that it was important that the evidence be kept in a secure storage locker.
"You wouldn't want to keep your lunch in there?" Keefe asked.
"I would never do that," Brown replied.
Keefe continued to question whether personal items should be stored near evidence.
"I've heard horror stories," Brown said.
"We may be in the process of telling another one," Keefe replied.
Summers countered prosecutors can demonstrate the chain of custody make the sexual assault kit contain the fingernails were properly preserved and secured.
Summers called any tampering or accidental substitution of evidence "sheer speculation" in a motion filed last week.
Keefe also alleged that a blood-stained hat found under Willis' body and hairs found on it is missing and may have been burned in a fire --- a fire started by then Centreville detective James Mister in 2012. Keefe has alleged that Mister removed everything from the Centreville evidence room and burned the items that were not labeled with a case.
Mister is expected to testify later this week.
Evidence on that black baseball hat could have exonerated Garrett, Keefe said.
But it is not in evidence. It still has not been found.
"I was particularly interested in that hat," said Dave Wasmuth, a retired ISP lieutenant who reopened the Willis case in 2009.
Wasmuth testified that there were police departments where the evidence was kept so poorly that he decided not to reopen a cold case. He stated that he did not receive an evidence log from the Centreville Police Department when he picked up the evidence in the Willis case.
"You don't really have an idea where that sexual assault kit has been for the past 16 years?
"No, I don't," Wasmuth replied.
The hearing is expected to continue Wednesday.
Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at email@example.com or 618-239-2570.