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Front Page - Friday, May 13, 2016

Evidence oversight committee striving for transparency, justice

Attorney Lee Davis (left) is part of a five-person citizen oversight committee District Attorney General Neal Pinkston (right) appointed to supervise the inventory of unprocessed evidence collected from autopsies that had been stored untouched in the medical examiner’s office for up to 30 years. - (Photo by David Laprad)


Criminal defense attorney Lee Davis and District Attorney General Neal Pinkston have stood on opposite sides of a courtroom arguing cases ranging from serious felonies to crimes for which the death penalty was considered. Although the process of litigating a matter often pitted the two men against each other, their pursuit of justice gave them common ground. Today, Davis and Pinkston are still seeking the truth, although they find themselves working together for a change.

The occasion that united Davis and Pinkston in purpose was the discovery of unprocessed evidence that had been stored untouched in the medical examiner’s office for up to 30 years. Once Pinkston learned about the existence of the materials, he contacted Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher to discuss how to deal with them.

Fletcher’s assistant chief, David Roddy, suggested an oversight committee. Pinkston liked the idea and got in touch with Davis to brainstorm names. Some local judges offered their thoughts as well, and a group of five soon came together.

Among them are Davis, who worked extensively with DNA evidence when courts were first testing those waters; the Hon. Buddy Perry, a retired judge; Hugh Moore, a member of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel’s litigation team; Dwight Aarons, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law; and Eddie Holmes, a past-president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County branch of the NAACP. The goal of this collective: overseeing the process of cataloging the evidence and ensuring the integrity of the materials.

Davis was pleased with the selections. “We have Dwight, who’s well regarded nationally; Buddy, who recently retired after 25 years of hearing criminal and civil cases; and Hugh, who has a background in civil rights,” he says.

“And we have Mr. Holmes. He’s the only non-lawyer on the team, but he represents an important interest,” Pinkston says.

The two men are seated in a conference room in the DA’s enclave at the courthouse. Davis praises Pinkston for putting together a team with a variety of perspectives, as he believes only a diverse group will be able to earn the public’s trust in the process of sorting through the evidence. “If the evidence leads us to court, so be it; if it goes back to the medical examiner’s office, that’s fine; and if it goes to the police because the case hasn’t been solved, that’s OK, too,” Davis says. “But the public’s trust has to be there, and the best way to earn that is by having people with different perspectives come together and ask how we’re going to handle things.”

Pinkston drafted a carefully considered process he believed would protect the veracity of the evidence – whether it’s fingernail clippings, hair, DNA swabs, or something else – as a variety of parties seek to uncover the truth it contains. First, the Hamilton County Auditing department would perform an inventory of the thousands of envelopes containing the decades-old evidence. Next, for each case, the medical examiners’ office would supply the corresponding autopsy report to determine which law enforcement agency worked the death investigation.

For each homicide case, the respective law enforcement agency would then pull its original incident report and review the investigative file. That information would then be relayed to Pinkston’s office, which would 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) of the findings. The judge would then decide how the evidence and news of its existence would be handled moving forward.

The process alleviated Davis’ concerns about evidence being mishandled. “If any of the materials are subject to forensic testing, then it’s of import to prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the courts, as it could either establish more evidence toward guilt or exonerate somebody,” Davis says. “Whatever led to these things being held in the medical examiner’s office, it appears everything was kept in files and envelopes, so it’s been preserved. Therefore, in the interest of justice, we wanted to make sure it would be properly documented and shared with the courts and other appropriate individuals.”

The committee approved the proposal, and on April 21, the first three filing cabinets containing the storied evidence were moved from the medical examiner’s office to Newell Tower, where County Auditor Jenneth Randall’s staff began cataloging the contents of the envelopes. The journey across town was captured on video, and the room in which the auditors are holding the evidence and sorting through it is also being videoed around the clock. Having a visual record of the entire process will allow people to be confident in how the evidence was handled, says Pinkston.

“Every second of video will be saved on a server,” the DA says. “In two years, if someone wants to look at how we handled Mr. Smith’s evidence, they’ll be able to watch the whole thing.”

Davis believes using the Hamilton County Auditor’s office to catalog the evidence was just as crucial a step as making a video record of the inventory process, as its staff is in the business of maintaining the public’s trust. “It seemed to be the right branch of the local government to do this,” he says. “We didn’t want the DA’s office to handle this. We wanted there to be checks and balances.”

Pinkston and Davis expect the road ahead will be long and navigated methodically. The meticulous work that will be involved will allow the system the DA devised to withstand scrutiny, and ensure due process is afforded to any individuals affected by the discovery of the evidence, says Davis. “I think the vast majority of the evidence will have no impact, or we’ll find out it was resolved to a cold case, or a suicide, or something else outside the realm of investigation,” he says. “But even if there’s one case that can possibly be affected, we have to ensure the integrity of all of the evidence.”

Davis commends Pinkston for taking on what will be a considerable task. “He could have turned over the evidence to local law enforcement and washed his hands of the matter, but he stepped in and said, ‘Let’s do the right thing; let’s look at this stuff and see where it leads.’ That’s true civic leadership,” Davis says. 

Pinkston says he merely has an ethical responsibility to seek justice, wherever that takes him: “If we learn of something that might negate someone’s guilt, we’re obligated to pursue it.” 

To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.