OGDEN — At least 12 criminal cases apparently tainted in the Weber County Sheriff’s Office‘s evidence room resulted in convictions, some of which now may be in question.
Still more cases were dismissed or never made it to court because of problems identified in the evidence room, chiefly dozens of bags of methamphetamine that allegedly were razored open and consumed by the evidence technician.
Investigators flagged at least 59 sheriff’s office incident reports during an internal affairs probe launched after the evidence room custodian was fired in January. Of those, the Standard-Examiner recently obtained 48 reports with an open records request.
At least 33 cases had drugs that apparently went missing in the evidence room, while four others involved mishandled rape kits. Still other case reports detailed instances of missing money and jewelry, mishandled guns, and angry complaints from evidence owners who were turned away by the technician when they attempted to retrieve their property.
“The fallout and consequences of this incident are far reaching,” the internal affairs report said in April. “They likely won’t be fully known for several years. The successful prosecution of criminal cases with evidence that had been stored under (the technician’s) care is in jeopardy.”
While county investigators and prosecutors continue to try to unravel the shambles of the evidence room, some defense attorneys are expressing alarm about the evidence tampering and its impact on the integrity of the local criminal justice system.
Attorney Randall Richards defended a man charged with possessing 2.9 grams of spice in Hooper. The defendant pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of attempted possession of spice, a synthetic form of marijuana, and was sentenced to a suspended jail term.
Richards was surprised Monday when told that the 2015 spice case showed up on the list of tainted evidence issues.
“I’ve yet to get a contact from the prosecutor’s office as to what cases of mine, if any, that may be compromised,” Richards said. The spice case, he said, “probably should have been dismissed if it was tampered with in any manner.”
He said he planned to research the matter and may ask the Hooper prosecutor to dismiss the case because of the evidence incident. If that doesn’t work, there’s the possibility of filing a court petition for post-conviction relief.
If the technician was stealing and eating methamphetamine for three years, as investigators reported, how can the extent be determined, Richards wondered.
“She’s certainly not going to write it down,” he said. “How do we know every single meth case isn’t compromised?”
He speculated whether some of the stolen meth may have been replaced with “powdered sugar or sea salt” that could be replaced again with other methamphetamine for trial purposes.
“It’s extremely problematic,” Richards said. “How to do we ever know my client’s case has been messed with?”
An unspecified number of cases that were active at the time the evidence room problems became known in December 2017 have been dismissed, Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said Monday.
But many of the other cases identified in the sheriff’s office investigation had been concluded long before, Allred said.
“I don’t blame them (defense attorneys) for looking close, but once the defendant pleads guilty it doesn’t matter and the evidence is supposed to be destroyed,” Allred said. “That evidence existed when they were charged.”
Investigators said there was a large backlog of evidence in the evidence room that should have been destroyed months or years earlier, so much of the meth used by the technician may have been from old cases.
Allred’s office in January sent out a general letter to local defense attorneys informing them of potential evidence problems because of the sheriff’s office calamity. But Richards and two other lawyers said that’s not enough.
“That’s the problem, if they’re taking a position of letting sleeping dogs lie” on specific cases that may have been affected, Richards said.
“This goes to the very heart and integrity of the entire justice system,” Richards said.
He contrasted law enforcement’s response to the evidence fiasco to what health authorities do when salmonella contamination is found on vegetables.
“They take all of the whatever it is, cucumbers, and strip it off the shelves and dispose of it,” he said. “But they don’t do the same thing, it boggles the mind, for all convictions based on evidence that has been tampered with.”
Another defense attorney, Emily Swenson, was able to get a client’s drug case dismissed because sheriff’s deputies could not tie her client to drugs found on a dresser in a hotel room. The man had been there with a woman he met on Tinder, but she was gone by that time and police could not prove the methamphetamine was her client’s.
That meth ended up missing in the evidence room, apparently consumed by the technician.
Swenson cited another example, of police collecting a drug suspect’s jewelry, worth $60,000, when he was arrested. In court, she questioned an agent of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force about the jewelry.
On an audio recording of the hearing, the agent said he did not know what happened to the jewelry. Swenson’s client is in prison and he still hasn’t received his jewelry.
“This is how they care about people’s property,” Swenson said. “I get reports like this … They can take people’s property and don’t make any logs of it.”
Most of the dozen convictions listed in the sheriff’s reports involved seized drugs and plea bargains.
“I had a guy who just went to prison whose cases would have run through the evidence locker there,” Swenson said in an earlier interview just after the evidence room problems were made public this year. “I’m disappointed I wasn’t informed this was going on when he entered his plea.
“We trust those items are still in the locker when we are doing plea deals,” she said.
Another local attorney said he received the county attorney’s letter, but it was “pretty vague and not very helpful.”
He said he did not know meth evidence was missing in one of his cases until a reporter asked him about it.
The attorney agreed to speak about the evidence room problems only on condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions from the county, which manages public defender contracts.
The corrupted evidence, he said, “is a huge problem. It leads to the violation of people’s constitutional rights when the state is not doing its job of preserving evidence and maintaining its integrity, because that’s what they use to convict our clients.”
He added, “If the state can’t be trusted to preserve evidence, it goes to the core of our criminal justice system. This whole evidence situation is a peek behind the curtain as to how broken the criminal justice system has become.”
But Allred said the sheriff’s office has taken great steps to clean up the evidence room and restore proper practices, plus adding security measures such as surveillance cameras.
He also stressed that most of the convictions resulted from guilty pleas long before tampering was discovered.
“I’m comfortable with our response, but I’m not comfortable with hers (the evidence technician),” he said.
And just because drug evidence is held by law enforcement doesn’t mean criminal charges always result.
“A lot of cases never get filed,” Allred said. “We find a problem with the evidence, a witness disappears, drugs are not drugs. A number of things can happen.”
The internal investigation also included reports of complaints from county prosecutors about lost or delayed evidence that ruined cases.
Criminal charges against the evidence technician are pending.
Standard-Examiner reporter Jacob Scholl contributed to this story.