Judge allows DNA evidence to be presented in 1989 murder case

News-DemocratMarch 19, 2014 

The trial for the man accused of the decades old murder of a Centreville girl will proceed after the judge found the DNA evidence discovered under the victim's nails shouldn't be suppressed.

Thomas Q. Keefe III, the defense lawyer for Carlos Garrett, had argued the DNA evidence should be thrown out because of shoddy evidence keeping at the Centreville Police Department. Prosecutors allege the DNA tied Garrett, 52, to the murder of 16-year-old Nicole Willis, who was found naked, beaten and strangled in a field near her home on Oct. 4, 1989.

At the three-day hearing to suppress the DNA evidence and dismiss the case against Garrett, the evidence-keeping procedures of the Centreville Police Department was described by former and current officers as a "total disaster" and "not adequate."

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse ruled that the clippings of Willis' pink-painted fingernails were sealed inside a sexual assault kit that was taken at the autopsy. Cruse found that, as to that particular kit, police took reasonable measure to ensure they were not compromised. She found no reason to believe that there was tampering of the sealed kit.

That ruling cleared the way for Garrett's trial to proceed on May 19.

"We got a fair hearing and a well-reasoned decision, albeit one I respectfully disagree with. You can't ask for more than that," Keefe said of the ruling.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly declined to comment.

Though Cruse did allow the DNA evidence to stay in, she didn't bar Keefe from raising the evidence-keeping flaws during Garrett's trial, or allowing the jury to decide whether it could trust the results taking into account those flaws.

"While there was evidence that other evidence may have been compromised and that the evidence-keeping methods of Centreville Police Department were deficient, it is established that deficiencies in the chain of custody go to the weight, not admissibility, of the evidence," Cruse wrote.

The jury also likely will hear that a blood-stained hat found under Willis' body -- and hairs found on it -- is missing and may have been burned in a fire that was 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 number. Neither the hat, nor the hairs found on it, have been found.

Evidence on that black baseball hat could have exonerated Garrett, Keefe said.

Mister testified that he only burned documents, not evidence.

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.

Current Chief Steve Brown testified that he changed procedures after he spoke with Keefe and his investigator, Mike Boyne.

These revelations may have other defense lawyers reviewing the evidence in their cases.

"Of course, I would defer to the other lawyers," Keefe said. "I think that it's a fair question to ask in any criminal case involving the Centreville Police Department."

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

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