DNA evidence from 48 sexual assault cases 'mistakenly' destroyed by Aurora Police, chief says

AURORA, Colo. - DNA evidence from 48 sexual assaults which occurred in Aurora during 2009 was destroyed, including one piece of evidence which derailed the prosecution of a pending case.

"Obviously this is not a good day for our department," said Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates, who had just come from informing the victim about the loss of the crucial evidence.

"It was a difficult meeting," Oates described. "She was generous and gracious and understanding, a lot more understanding than I would have been."

He said that without the DNA match, "the conclusion is that [her] case is no longer prosecutable."

It was the loss of the evidence for that case, Oates said, which alerted his department to the problem.

Oates also told reporters he was concerned about a second specific case among the 48, an unsolved sexual assault that matched DNA from two other unresolved sexual assaults in Denver.

If the suspect were to ever be identified, Oates said, "It will be hard to make the Aurora case without the DNA."

The chief said another 28 cases among the 48 were unlikely to be prosecuted, but his department was required to hold on to the evidence by law.

"Well intentioned people in the property and evidence section made a mistake here," Oates said.

An injured officer assigned to light duty in the Property and Evidence Unit is apparently responsible for destroying the evidence from those 30 cases, the department said in a written press release.

"We will do all that we should do to fix this problem, including assigning blame where we have to," Oates said.

Evidence from the 18 remaining cases had been approved for destruction by the detectives involved, but hadn't been cleared by a Property and Evidence Unit technician to ensure that destruction is permissible under the law.

There are also some other kinds of cases that could have been affected by the errors, but Oates said he didn't believe they were a "problem of magnitude."

"There was a window of about 6 months where this activity was taking place and it was a mistake," he said.

As an immediate step, the Aurora Police Department has put a moratorium on the destruction of actual or potential DNA evidence from any cases.

Deputy Police Chief Terry Jones will chair a panel charged with analyzing what went wrong and producing a public report with recommendations by November 1. The other members of the panel will be Senior Assistant Attorney General Julie Selsberg, retired Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers, Colorado State University Chief of Police Wendy Rich-Goldschmid and Chief Deputy District Attorney Ann Tomsic from the 18th Judicial District. The 17th Judicial District will also assign a member to the panel.

"There is clearly a failure here on the part of the police department. We deeply regret it. We need to get to the bottom of it, learn from it, have better systems in place and move on," said Oates.