Photo by Brian Giandelone
LAWRENCEVILLE — When Lawrenceville police transferred evidence that’s crucial in hundreds of pending cases from their former headquarters to an upgraded facility last year, they brought in Gwinnett County Jail inmates to do the heavy lifting.
Those alleged criminals also raised the potential for contaminating the evidence’s chain-of-custody, the path from crime scene to courthouse that is critical in criminal trials, officials said Monday.
While Lawrenceville police officials recently conceded that, on the surface, putting everything from handguns and surveillance videos to bulk marijuana in the hands of inmates — albeit in sealed boxes — may sound illogical, police followed strict security plans and never took eyes off offenders during the brief transport on June 19, 2010.
“Common sense would tell you we had it pretty well covered,” said Lawrenceville police Maj. Paul King. “If we ever had any doubts that (evidence) was going to be compromised in any way, we wouldn’t have done it.”
The three inmates’ role in transferring evidence surfaced in late April, during the marijuana trafficking trial of Oronde Clay, 39, of Norcross. During testimony, Clay’s defense attorney, David Clark, quizzed Lawrenceville police officer Eric Wiernik, the department’s evidence room manager, about the method of transferring roughly eight pounds of pot his client was caught with.
Clay was eventually sentenced in the bench trial to serve five years, which Wiernik said discredits the notion that the evidence had been compromised. Still, Clark said the method used by police seemed “kind of odd.”
“It casts suspicions on the chain-of-custody,” Clark said. “There’s no evidence that the evidence in my case was tampered with, but the potential is there.”
District Attorney Danny Porter said he wasn’t aware that inmates were used in the transfer, and that he’d never heard of police intentionally putting evidence in the hands of inmates before, but he’s confident the integrity and quality of the proof remains.
“I would not classify it as best practices, but given the fact that (evidence boxes were) sealed up, it shouldn’t affect the cases,” Porter said.
Wiernik specified that most evidence was sealed in bags, pre-boxed before the move and shrink-wrapped in little towers of four. Larger items were individually sealed in more spacious boxes. The move lasted from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., as dozens of boxes traveled in a convoy of three police vehicles less than a mile around Gwinnett’s county seat. Four officers watched the physical labor and made sure inmates didn’t ride with the evidence, he said.
Inmate workers then unloaded the boxes in the $7.7 million headquarter’s new evidence room, a card-key-controlled area with cinderblock walls and high ceilings, roughly eight times bigger than its predecessor.
The move was kept hush-hush around the department to discourage spectators, Wiernik said.
“In effect, we did move it ourselves,” he said. “We just used jail inmate persons for the physical labor part of it. The jail is real specific about who they let out.”
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais said minimum-risk inmates are loaned to several Gwinnett cities which manage and return them to jail once work details are complete. On average, 27 inmates are loaned daily, she said.
On the day Lawrenceville police transferred evidence, records show that eight inmates were loaned to the city. Neither Lawrenceville police nor the Sheriff’s Department kept track of which three worked for police and subsequently handled evidence boxes that day.
Records show that all eight inmates had been arrested multiple times. Their charges at the time ranged from probation violations and theft to shoplifting. While Wiernik said he couldn’t recall the inmates by name, he remembered them as having worked daily janitorial jobs around the police department.
Porter said officers who oversaw the transfer can expect to be subpoenaed to testify, if the evidence is challenged. He doesn’t anticipate the inmate movers will be called to witness stands.
Accreditation agencies maintain high standards at both state and national levels for evidence handling but neither specifically prohibit inmate involvement. Lawrenceville police are not accredited in Georgia or by the national regulatory body, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA.
Frank V. Rotondo, Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police executive director, said courts aren’t likely to buy that evidence standards were altered based on inmates handling sealed boxes for a brief time, though that case could be made.
“Lawrenceville has a lot to lose if they weren’t doing it correctly,” Rotondo said. “Evidence is one of the highest liability areas in today’s law enforcement.”
Craig Hartley, CALEA deputy director, said evidence handling accounts for a large number of the agencies standards.
“I can’t tell you that the (CALEA) strategy used to control the property would prohibit the use of (inmates), because we don’t address it specifically,” Hartley said. “However, I think there always has to be tight protocol in place to ensure the integrity of those items.”