Procedural Changes In Store For Florida's Criminal Justice System

Feb 14, 2014

Procedural changes are in store for Florida’s criminal justice system. State lawmakers must address the escapes of several felons who used forged court documents to secure their release. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also reviewing its crime lab operations, after the recent arrest of a former chemist suspected of tampering with drug evidence in multiple cases.

It’s been months since a pair of inmates escaped from a Franklin County prison using documents that appeared to have a judge’s signature but were actually false. Authorities later found at least six inmates in Florida had used forge documents in escape attempts, including the two convicted killers, Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, who escaped in October.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews says his agency, working alongside the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the courts, has since revamped the way court orders are processed. They’re now working with Florida lawmakers to put that in state law. Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman and Baker Republican Senator Greg Evers is leading that charge.

“Senate Bill 592, the reason for that bill is to verify the authenticity of a court order that would be issued by a judge to be sure that a person was not released from incarceration, without actually being confirmed that a judge had actually signed or authorized the order releasing or reducing a sentence for an inmate,” said Evers.

He says even though the agencies and the judicial branch are already make changes, putting it in statute helps clarify the process.

Then there’s the latest scandal to rock the criminal justice system—a former Pensacola crime lab chemist who’s worked thousands of cases in the last seven years where prescription drugs were substituted with over-the-counter medications.

Speaking to a panel of lawmakers, FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey says his agency was first alerted to the problem last month by the Escambia County Sheriff’s office.

“Early on, after our investigators got there in the last week in January, we were able to see that the evidence exhibits that had missing drugs had all been processed by one individual in the Pensacola regional crime lab. As a matter of fact, the individual that had processed those drug exhibits was a supervisor of the chemistry section in the Pensacola office,” said Bailey.

An Inspector General’s report is expected to be distributed soon to legislators concerning what happened and possible solutions. Bailey says procedural shifts are likely, including changing how the evidence is bagged.

“We’re considering is to start requiring that our contributing agencies bring pill evidence to us in plastic see-through bags as opposed to what is the most common now is a brown paper container of some sort. So, that one simple move will help to some extent,” added Bailey.

He says they’re also considering changing the way drug evidence is also tagged by describing shapes, colors, and any pill markings. And he says there will also be regularly-scheduled crime lab inspections and random ones by supervisors and the Inspector General’s Office.

Lawmakers on the panel appeared receptive to his ideas, including Umatilla Republican Senator Alan Hays, who added a suggestion of his own.

“In the evaluation of you techniques, would you at least examine the likelihood or the feasibility in requiring two people to handle all that evidence, instead of just allowing one person to handle it,” asked Hays.

Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley, who chairs Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Budget panel, says the agency still has their vote of confidence.

“Your integrity is so critical to that process, and we know you have it. Obviously, the integrity of our criminal justice system depends on the integrity of the FDLE processing evidence. So, keep us posted and let us know what we can do to assist you in giving you the tools you need to make sure the integrity of the system is upheld in all respects,” said Bradley.

Meanwhile, Joseph Graves, the former lab chemist in question, has been charged with grand theft, tampering with evidence and drug trafficking. A criminal investigation into the cases Graves handled is still ongoing, and more charges could be filed. Since 2006, Graves handled 2,600 cases for 80 law enforcement agencies. Bailey says with 35 counties involved, other State Attorneys across the state may also have their own charges to file.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.