A Styrofoam mannequin head, a zebra riding horse and a section of wooden fence are some of the more unusual items housed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court’s criminal evidence rooms.
At some point, each item may have proven critical to a case.
But now, they are relics building up in storage areas that haven’t been cleaned out in 15 years and are rapidly running out of space.
Within the next two months, criminal court administrators will begin a comprehensive review of evidence dating back to 1995 to determine how much can be destroyed or returned to district attorneys, the Sheriff’s Department or defendants.
“It is like you are moving down to Florida and you are just clearing out your house,” said Tammy Kruczynski, criminal division administrator, who is overseeing the project.
The comparison is apt, given the assortment of evidence piled on shelves in no particular order or significance.
The three rooms are inaccessible by the general public and only Kruczynski and a handful of others have authorization to the “organized chaos” behind doors protected by both key and combination locks.
One area contains more than 450 boxes of records and documents, most from multiple cases.
In another secured space, pungent smells from rows of boxes containing marijuana and other drugs fill the air. Nearby, dozens of shotguns are packed into a custom-made storage unit on the floor.
A separate metal locker contains photos and psychological evaluations from the 1989 Jeffrey Dahmer homicide case, as well as clothing and files from the 1992 case involving convicted murderer Jesse Anderson.
Given that both Anderson and Dahmer were killed in prison, Kruczynski said “at some point, we’re going to get rid of it because by statute, we don’t have to keep it anymore.”
Every exhibit is labeled and each box contains a list of the contents.
The starting point for determining the value of evidence will be a search of the Public Records of the Consolidated Court Automation Programs, or CCAP system, to see whether cases are ongoing or eligible for appeal.
State statute requires that any evidence be kept for a minimum of 16 months and anything with DNA has to be held for 50 years, unless there is a court order to destroy it or a final discharge of those involved in the case.
“The biggest challenges will be the whole existence of DNA,” Kruczynski said. “Because it’s been documented that people have come back years later to request that evidence.”
In the past year, the Wisconsin Innocence Project has been particularly active in making requests with the court to preserve older evidence.
“Basically, it’s gone from none to some in the last couple of years,” Kruczynski said of the increase.
The University of Wisconsin Law School-based Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization that identifies and pursues wrongful conviction cases, based on DNA evidence.
Staff attorney Ion Meyn said a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice has allowed the Innocence Project to send out 6,000 letters to people who have been convicted of homicide or sexual assault to see if their cases warrant further review.
The organization has received 1,500 responses and one of the first steps in evaluating a case is to determine if there is DNA available and if so, send out a preservation letter.
“We definitely want to have some input on this,” Meyn said of the evidence room review. “Because if we file a motion to test, I hope they have those pieces of evidence on hand.”
Kruczynski acknowledged the concern that seemingly outdated evidence could become relevant, which is why the cleanup is being coordinated with prosecutors and defense attorneys to authorize destruction of evidence in cases that have no chance of coming back to court.
Ninety percent of the exhibits housed by the court were submitted by the state, Kruczynski said, which means that prosecutors will need to provide input on the value of evidence and help decide whether to keep it or destroy it.
“If we don’t have to retain it, we’ll be glad to give it back to the district attorney’s office,” she said.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is on board with the project, but said there are certain types of cases that will lend themselves to longer retention times.
He said his office will work with the administrators to ensure that any potentially useful evidence isn’t accidentally destroyed.
“I just want to make sure all of the appeals are exhausted,” he said. “Some homicides and sexual assault cases we might want to keep for a longer period of time.”
Evidence elimination projects have been discussed in the past, Kruczynski said, but never became a priority until now because space is running out.
The Clerk of Court’s office was unsure when the last cleanup had been done prior to 1995.
With only a dozen or so shelving units now left available for evidence, Kruczynski said the goal of the upcoming house cleaning is to eliminate at least two years worth of unneeded items.
At this point, she isn’t sure how much time or money the project will cost, but said she wants to do evidence inventory every couple of years going forward, given that new exhibits are coming in daily.
“Now and then you wonder things like, what is the story behind things, like that zebra?” Kruczynski said. “But then you move on.”
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at [email protected].