Police chief: Centreville did poor job of keeping evidence in murder case

News-DemocratMarch 6, 2014 

Centreville Police Chief Steve Brown testified Thursday that the chain of custody regarding the evidence in a decades-old murder case "was not adequate."

Brown testified in the case of Carlos Garrett, 52, who faces first-degree murder charges in connection with beating and strangulation of teenager Nicole Willis, whose naked body was found in a vacant field on Oct. 4, 1989.

DNA found on one of Willis' pink-painted fingernail clippings linked Garrett to the murder, prosecutors said.

Thomas Q. Keefe III, Garrett's attorney, is asking St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse to toss the DNA evidence and dismiss the case against Garrett because of the shabby evidence keeping by Centreville police.

As part of the testimony in the case, Keefe stated that equipment, documents, car parts and even Christmas decorations were stored in the evidence locker. No evidence log was kept. Evidence, including a baseball hat found under Willis' body and Willis' clothes, went missing. Keefe alleged that during a cleaning of the locker, evidence was burned.

Brown, who became chief in 2010, stated that procedures at the department changed after they came into questions from Keefe and his investigator, Mike Boyne.

"Do you believe that it is important to maintain evidence properly to ensure that you get the right guy?" Keefe asked Brown.

"Yes, I do," Brown said.

"Why?" Keefe asked

"Evidence links the person to the crime," Brown replied.

Brown testified that he:

* Implemented an evidence log book for items coming in and out of the evidence locker.

* Added evidence log sheets for individual pieces of evidence.

* Wrote a detail evidence handling policy for the department.

Prosecutors Ali Summers and Deborah Phillips asserted the state only needed to account for the box that contained the sexual assault kit. Summers countered prosecutors can demonstrate the chain of custody makes the sexual assault kit containing the fingernails were properly preserved and secured. That's what the law requires, Summers said.

"What you have here is a time capsule," Summers said, referring to the sexual assault kit. "Actually, it's a time capsule inside a time capsule. The fingernails are sealed in an envelope sealed in the sexual assault kit."

Because some items are missing evidence, including some of the victim's clothes and a baseball cap, Keefe said the state could not ensure the proper safekeeping of all of the evidence --- including the rape kit.

"If that's a time capsule, its not buried under a 100-feet of ground under Grand Central Station. It is sitting next to Track 3," Keefe replied.

The state must show that it protected evidence in delivery, presence and safekeeping by taking reasonable protective measures and that it is unlikely that the evidence has been altered.

Testimony in the case was completed Thursday. Cruse, who also heard testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, will issue a written ruling after reviewing the law and the case.

On Wednesday, the former detective James Mister testified the evidence locker at the department was a "total disaster."

Retired ISP Lt. Dave Wasmuth testified Tuesday about reopening the cold case in 2009 after looking for and finding the sexual assault kit in Centreville's police locker.

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

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