Unprocessed Evidence Going Back 30 Years Discovered at Medical Examiner's Office

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The Hamilton County District Attorney's Office says it has learned that unprocessed evidence collected from an undetermined number of autopsies has been stored untouched in the Medical Examiner's Office for up to 30 years.

The office says while working on a cold case, the D.A.'s Cold Case Unit learned an employee of the Medical Examiner's Office had discovered un-analyzed evidence from a susbtantial number of homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths spanning the years 1986 to 2002.

The office says an initial review of the 1986-1988 autopsy files revealed 35 cases with unanalyzed evidence. Of those, 13 are suicides or accidental deaths, two are cold case murders, and the remaining 20 are homicides that have presumably been prosecuted.

The office says the full scope of the problem is still unclear, and that insuring the evidence is properly inventoried will be a tedious process.

The D.A.'s office explains that evidence such as bullets removed from bodies, fingernail clippings, hair, and DNA swabs are put in small envelopes and labeled with an ME intake number which is assigned as a body arrives at the Medical Examiner's office.

Defense attorney Robin Flores says this evidence could create a ripple effect.

"From a defense perspective, it's a gold mine because it draws into question the integrity of convictions in cases," Flores said.

And he just hopes that none of this evidence is related to any of his clients that have been charged with murder.

Someone must pull the corresponding autopsy report and the original incident report to determine the victim's name and which law enforcement agency worked the death investigation.

For each homicide case, the law enforcement agency must review the investigative file to determine a suspect's name. The office says that information must then be relayed to the D.A.'s office so they can search for the defendant's court file and then notify the defendant and the judge who originally handled the case (or his or her successor).

If the homicide has been prosecuted, the office says the D.A.'s Cold Case Unit must make sure the evidence is sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The office says Tennessee Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct rule 3:8 requires "prosecutors who learn of new, credible, and material evidence" to "undertake further investigation, or make reasonable efforts to cause an investigation, to determine whether the defendant was convicted of an offense that the defendant did not commit."

The office says to ensure conviction integrity in the prosecuted homicides, District Attorney Neal Pinkston will create an external oversight committee to supervise the inventory and review of unprocessed evidence.

The sitting Criminal Court judges have offered their recommendations for who should be appointed to the committee, which will be comprised of an out of district and/or retired Judge, a defense attorney, a civil rights advocate, and a law professor.

The office says the Committee should be appointed by January 15th, 2016, at which time District Attorney General Neal Pinkston will provide the members with a proposal for conducting the evidence inventory. Responses from the committee members will be used to finalize the protocol that will be followed to account for all of the unprocessed evidence.

Pinkston says he realizes this is a mistake and admits that someone dropped the ball somewhere. We asked him who was the person that should be held accountable for this.

"That is an answer that someone else could come up with. All I know is that we discovered the problem, and we're attempting to fix it," he said.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond issued this response to the news:

"Recently, the HCSO was made aware officials with the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office Cold Case Unit had discovered unprocessed evidence from a number of homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths spanning the years 1986-2002 stored at the Medical Examiner's Office.

Having been made aware of this situation, my staff immediately met with District Attorney Pinkston in order to be made fully aware of the details of the discovery and how the District Attorney's Office plans to move forward.

While many of the details have yet to be determined and if any of this evidence pertains to City and County cases, I have assured General Pinkston the HCSO will work with his office as we move forward under his guidance and direction."

This is a developing story. Depend on NewsChannel 9 for updates as we get them.

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