MANATEE -- Among the more than 3,600 Manatee County Sheriffs Office cases that had evidence destroyed by water while stored in a Bradenton bank vault were 66 homicides; more than 280 rapes, sexual batteries and related crimes; and 12 sexual abuse cases in which the victims were children.
The sheriffs office was storing evidence in the First Union Bank vault on Manatee Avenue West, because its normal evidence rooms were overflowing -- a problem thats still plaguing the department today.
The water damage was discovered in 2002 as a result of litigation filed by the Innocence Project of Florida on behalf of Derrick Williams -- an inmate who was later freed and his life sentence for rape and kidnapping overturned, in part, because evidence from his case was damaged while stored in the bank vault and later incinerated by the sheriffs office.
The Bradenton Herald requested a complete list this week of each type of crime that comprise the 3,637 cases. On Wednesday, officials provided a partial list of 352 crimes -- homicides and sex crimes only. Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube and his staff said they provided the partial response because the statute of limitations for the remainder of the cases had long since expired. Many of the cases, which span 1980 to 1995, also were not computerized, and will need to be searched manually, they noted.
Steube and his senior staff met to discuss the damaged and destroyed evidence on Wednesday. The Herald reported Wednesday on the impasse that has developed between the sheriff and County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, as officials try to remedy the storage problems that led to the evidence being damaged and subsequently destroyed. Steube wants more room at his headquarters, while Hunzeker believes the sheriff should use the old county jail in downtown Bradenton.
The sheriff and his staff said that not all of the 3,637 were active, unsolved cases, although they did not provide supporting documentation on Wednesday. Some of the cases, they said, were solved, the suspects long since prosecuted. Others had no suspect identified. Some of the cases, they said, were not even criminal in nature but consisted merely of recovered property.
I cant say anyone went unpunished, Steube said. There are open cases and closed cases. There are people who were arrested and we have to retain the evidence. Many of those people were prosecuted.
Chief Deputy Col. Chuck Hagaman said some of the destroyed evidence was never needed at trial, or involved convictions that were never appealed.
A lot of this was evidence we hadnt gotten rid of. We just hadnt done it yet. Hagaman said. There wasnt a whodunit case.
Some of the homicide cases, however, remain unsolved, and the fact that evidence no longer exists could hinder prosecution.
Steube described the action his agency could take if a suspect in one of the open homicide cases walked into the sheriffs office and admitted to committing one of the unsolved killings.
We would then try to get a confession, and rely upon the states attorney to go forward, knowing its possible that all of the evidence was destroyed, he said.
States Attorney Earl Moreland did not return calls seeking comment for this report.
Both Steube and his chief deputy said only the Derrick Williams case was affected by the evidence that was damaged by water and incinerated by the department.
Williams had served 17 years of his life sentence for rape until a judge earlier this year overturned the conviction, partially due to the evidence destruction. The judge also found that Williams due-process rights had been violated because evidence in his case was destroyed after it had been damaged by water.
It had been destroyed by water, and disposed of by us, Steube said.
But Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, believes that other wrongfully convicted people may have lost their chance for freedom because exculpatory evidence was damaged by water and later burned by the sheriffs office.
One would have to think there are other Derrick Williams in those 3,600 cases, Miller said. The takeaway is well never know.
Derrick was lucky, he added. He had a key piece of evidence held in the clerk of court. He had a key to unlock the truth about his case. For other people, their evidence was destroyed. Their chance at freedom may have burned along with the rest of the evidence that was incinerated.
Williams conviction was overturned also because his DNA did not match material found on a shirt still available for testing.
Miller, whose office took the Williams case in 2006, said he kept getting stonewalled by officials when he asked about the existence of other evidence.
For months and months we were getting conflicting answers. We werent able to come up with documentation about the location of the evidence or whether it was destroyed, he said.
Miller said the sheriffs office tried to re-create records of the destruction after the fact.
They tried to piece it all together. They didnt have any records, he said. We cant have a system that allows for the effective prosecution of the guilty or the freeing of the innocent unless we have evidence being kept in the best way possible to maintain its integrity.