Erie County deputy's mistake is irreparable and inexplicable

Evidence lost is justice miscarried

The innocence or guilt of four individuals accused of committing murder in 1998 is yet to be determined, but the incompetence of an Erie County deputy who disposed of evidence crucial to the case has been proven beyond a doubt.

Former Deputy Douglas Burke, now retired, explained to a federal judge that he gave away murder evidence to an auctioneer four years after the initial crime.

The evidence in question, which the auctioneer sold, was far from incidental. It included several knives, a shovel possibly used to bury the victim and a steak knife blade that may have been the murder weapon.

How any individual, much less a sheriff’s deputy, could mistake these items as disposable is difficult to understand.

Burke claimed that he was simply trying to clear out some space on the shelves of a crowded evidence storage room – a storage room that exists for the purpose of preserving any and all potential evidence.

This serious and embarrassing error leaves a murder trial overshadowed by incompetency and doubt.

The alleged killers of Francisco Santos, who was murdered in October 1998 in Seneca Nation territory, are believed to have stabbed Santos and buried him in a shallow grave after several drug-related feuds.

But the actions of the accused individuals, who maintain their innocence, are now impossible to prove forensically.

The disposal of evidence irrevocably taints this case, leaving Magistrate Judge Jonathan Feldman with a difficult decision regarding the efficacy of this trial.

Though Feldman decided that the case would go on, declining to dismiss the murder charges, the trial can no longer represent an effective carriage of justice.

Burke’s error leaves the courts in a catch-22 – either dismiss the charges and allow four potentially guilty men to walk free, or carry on with a trial in which the full story can no longer be told.

Feldman chose the former option, leaving it up to prosecutors to take on the now exceptionally difficult task of demonstrating the guilt of the accused without the evidence that was once available.

The judge’s decision makes it possible that Burke’s mistake could be somewhat mitigated – if the guilt or innocence of the alleged killers can still be accurately determined, the repercussions of the lost evidence are certainly less severe.

But no matter the outcome, the existence of this dilemma is problematic in and of itself.

The county’s current undersheriff insists that evidence handling has now been greatly improved, with a computerized locker and bar coded items. But it’s unforgivable that such a system wasn’t put in place until after crucial evidence was lost – and “lost” is an entirely too generous misnomer.

That the Sheriff’s Office in 2002 was still using pen and paper records, that there was so little oversight of the evidence storage, that a deputy somehow wasn’t sufficiently trained in evidence handling (Step 1: Don’t give away evidence to auctioneers) is almost laughable.

Of course, this story revolves around a murder, so humor can’t sufficiently lessen the blow of the Sheriff Office’s failures.