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The Evidence In The Vaults Below The Courthouse

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San Diego Superior Court stores about 30,000 exhibits and two-fifths of them are from murder cases. All evidence has to be stored until a case's appeals process is complete.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Last week we told you about the city of San Diego's archives where documents are stored dating back to the 18 hundreds today we bring you a tour of a different kind of storage place where thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence are stored from all the county's criminal cases. KPBS investigative reporter Claire. Chegg is her, has the story as you enter the San Diego superior courts, evidence storage vaults, the sound that greets you is rushing water like a spa or are relaxing fountain, except this water runs through a pipe overhead labeled sanitary waste.

Speaker 2: 00:39 It's funny too, you have to work under Rhode Island. Bill next has run evidence

Speaker 1: 00:43 storage for 30 years. He's worked down in the basement of the old court house and now the new one cataloguing and storing every piece of evidence that's used in the court

Speaker 2: 00:53 above. Okay. Well when new exhibits or brought in, they're brought into this open area here. Nick's points to a counter stacked with Manila envelopes. This is what a new case on look like if it's just paper. Next is the librarian sort of, he has a card catalog system that tells you where exactly each piece of evidence is and who's looked at it and that's very important. If something goes missing, he'll know who to blame. So basically the envelope is the, is the brain of the case basically. So the exhibit list is in there. Any paper documents is usually stored in there and they're filed here. But in other ways nicks is nothing like a librarian. This is all hand guns here. The smaller boxes we keep, and again they're separated by case number. All the red dots that you see, those are all murder cases.

Speaker 2: 01:41 For one thing. A lot of what he's storing our guns and then like sometimes we'll get items like this where it's stored in plexiglass. Nick's pulls out a giant assault rifle in a plexiglass case that's almost as tall as he is. He also points out other murder weapons, miscellaneous weapons. These are just items that for one reason or another were used to harm somebody. He items include a few shovels, rakes, a mop and some hockey sticks. When I first started working here, I was 20 years old and I'll be honest with Ya, I was a little, it messes with your mortality a little bit cause you see so much death around you, pictures of it and it's like wow, you know, it'll, it can, but then it wears off and you really don't see it after a while. I hate to admit it, but Nick's also has a few ghost stories from the old courthouse on Broadway.

Speaker 2: 02:32 Yeah. It was a little spooky over there. We had what was called a d vault over there and uh, we started nothing but murder death penalty's over there. That's it. That's all it was there. And there was a lot of ugly things in there and I had a cart. If fact it's in there, a green cart that is very heavy. I had it resting inside and it rolled on its own out that door over that threshold and enter this room and there's no way he did that without a show up. There's just no way it could happen. The evidence next

Speaker 1: 03:00 keeps is from a murder case back in the 1970s

Speaker 2: 03:03 the person absconded and they're still, there's a warrant out for him. So it and whenever there's a warrant out, no matter what, we can't get rid of the case.

Speaker 1: 03:10 And that's another way. Nix is not like a library and his purpose is not to hold on to all evidence forever, just as long as it might be needed in court. We're responsible for

Speaker 3: 03:21 painting and managing the exhibits all the way through the appellate process.

Speaker 1: 03:28 Michael Rati is the executive officer for the San Diego Superior Court.

Speaker 3: 03:32 I think there's always a concern that years and years later, somebody may be exonerated if they were wrongly convicted. And of course the evidence could be important in that. And so again, we wait until a case was fully completed and then we even wait longer than that and we don't do it the exact minute that we can get rid of things.

Speaker 1: 03:51 Death penalty cases are kept until the person is executed or dies naturally. Murder cases are also kept a long time because there can be lengthy appeals. San Diego, Superior Court stores. About 30,000 exhibits and two fifths of them are from murder cases. They also notify all parties in the case before anything is destroyed in case they want to reclaim evidence or ask that it be kept longer. But this can create a demand on space in the storage vaults.

Speaker 3: 04:20 You've got to keep some things going out the back door because you have constantly have things coming in the front door

Speaker 1: 04:26 to help free up space. They've been able to get rid of many of the giant foam boards people used to hold up in court, storing the images electronically instead. And a lot of evidence is now stored as photographs on DVDs. But the evidence room supervisor, Nick says that wasn't true in the past. He's stored some very large items.

Speaker 2: 04:48 We had a, uh, two bank robbers that we had. They admitted all of their tools as evidence. They were huge drills and saws, uh, that their purpose was to, to be magnetized to the face of the door and um, for reuse. And they were ungodly heavy. We had buckets of ship chain all with this one case. It was incredible. We've had a mock room that was made up of board, but it was when it was put together, it was a huge room. Um, car fenders, car doors, uh, armchairs full size television sets, big screens. There really was no, there was no, they could bring anything. Well, it, we were lucky we didn't get anything bigger cause they, they would have

Speaker 1: 05:39 the last part of the evidence storage process is destruction or reuse.

Speaker 2: 05:45 The sheriff's office would get, um, narc or a handguns. The DEA gets our narcotics and our ammunition and scales

Speaker 1: 05:54 taken as evidence in drug cases used to be sold at auctions.

Speaker 2: 05:58 The bad people were buying them back. So now we, we stockpiled and then we, we donate them to local schools. Really much better purpose. I think key PBS news.

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KPBS Midday Edition

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.