Kansas: Law on DNA evidence proves tricky for some

By Ron Sylvester

The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Ronnie Rhodes wondered why he couldn't seek legal relief if evidence in his 30-year-old murder case was destroyed without a court order.

Currently, 33 states require evidence in the most serious crimes to be maintained at least as long as a convicted person remains in prison.

Kansas is not one of them.

And even though state law requires a court order to destroy evidence, there are no consequences for disobeying it.

"One of the problems is that there are no sanctions for destroying evidence without a court order," said Rebecca Woodman, an adjunct professor at Washburn Law School, whose students have been studying problems with Rhodes' case for two years.

Rhodes has spent 30 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit. Rhodes, 56, was convicted of murder in the 1981 stabbing of Cleother Burrell in Wichita.

It wasn't until Rhodes read a report on his case by The Eagle that he learned evidence in his case apparently had been destroyed without a court order, contrary to Kansas law.

Colorado had similar problems until it passed an evidence-retention law in 2008 that experts consider to be one of the strongest in the country. The law passed a year after the Denver Post reported that authorities had lost or destroyed evidence in hundreds of cases.

Among them: Clarence Moses-El, who is serving a 48-year sentence on a rape conviction. After serving 19 years in prison, Moses-El asked for DNA tests. But the evidence in his case no longer exists.

Colorado now requires police to keep biological evidence in violent crimes as long as a convict is alive. If evidence is destroyed, the law gives Colorado courts the discretion to reopen the case and decide whether the destruction of evidence violated a person's due process rights.

But the recent trend in evidence laws doesn't help people like Rhodes, who were convicted decades ago.

It's uncertain how many similar cases exist in Kansas because prosecutors across the state do not track requests for DNA testing.

But among more than a dozen local cases identified by the Sedgwick County District Attorney's office, records show, few had evidence still available.

Since 2004, Kansas allows for the destruction of evidence in most cases after five years, said Joetta Richardson, section supervisor who oversees tech services with the Wichita Police Department.

Since the early 1990s, she said, police have attempted to maintain evidence in homicide cases.

Most evidence in Rhodes' case was destroyed by 1988, the same year a trial began for Oliver K. Smith Jr. -- the first case in Kansas to use DNA technology.

Using DNA samples taken from a rape kit by pathologists in Wichita two years earlier, a Geary County jury convicted Smith of the 1986 murder of Shelly Prine.

Rhodes said he didn't know until he read The Eagle's story in February that evidence in his case had been stored above a tire rack in a garage at Wichita police headquarters.

That's where hairs taken from Burrell's hands were stored. It's evidence Rhodes had hoped would exonerate him.

Other evidence that could also have provided DNA evidence in Rhodes' case also has been destroyed.

Files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation show that a knife that prosecutors contended was the murder weapon had traces of human blood.

The KBI lab reported in 1981 that the blood couldn't be tested. But it might have yielded information under current technology.

Wichita police destroyed the knife and other evidence on Nov. 3, 1988, according to evidence logs.

None of the detectives who worked Rhodes' case are still with the Wichita Police Department.

Published: Mon, Apr 4, 2011