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In the interim between crime and punishment, evidence awaits its trial.

Justice's Waiting Room

Past a swinging door marked "Restricted area" and into a quietly humming room that opens with a magnetic card key, Joseph Brock grips the handle of a freezer door on a white, household-size refrigerator.

Brock, a forensic police officer, pulls the door open. Inside the freezer, sealed in a clear plastic bag, is something that looks like a rock the shape of a hot dog.

"Bone," Brock explains. He's not sure whose, though. Tests haven't been run to determine whether it comes from a human.

Next to the bone rest two brown bags that could carry school lunches — but surely do not. This is evident from a sign on the refrigerator warning "Food and Drink Prohibited." And next to the bags is a white cardboard box labeled "Biohazard." It holds tissue samples from a fetus.

Tragic, gruesome circumstances surround these items, along with those stacked on shelves and against walls. But the room in which they temporarily reside is tidy, organized and matter-of-fact. Emotion doesn't belong here. Facts do.

This is Richmond's evidence vault, one of four in Virginia run by the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services. Housed in the Biotech II building at 700 N. 5th St., it's an intermission to the drama of DNA matching. It's where evidence waits between the scene of a crime and the sharp eye of a scientist.

It's the stuff at the heart of the political debates and legal fights challenging DNA matching. The battles are intensifying as science, more than ever, is being used to convict the guilty and free the innocent.

Take the case of Roger Keith Coleman, for example, who was executed nine years ago for raping and killing his sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy, in Grundy. Last week, newspapers and charitable organizations were still challenging the state to conduct new DNA testing they contend could determine his guilt or innocence once and for all.

But the controversy surrounding such cases is belied by this bland first-floor evidence room. It is about 10,000 square feet, with linoleum on the floor and fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Dark-gray, 7-foot-high metal shelves stand back to back, creating five main aisles. In the background, a cooling and ventilation system purrs, keeping the temperature at about 76 degrees and humidity at 30 percent. If there is any smell detectable, it's that of a hospital.

The room is filled with ordinary paper bags, cardboard boxes and clear plastic envelopes. Everything is meticulously labeled and signed in, passed on, or signed out, explains Dr. Paul B. Ferrara, director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science. "The concept is maintaining that chain of custody," he says.

That's important because what's inside these plain containers are biological clues that could catch killers.

Ferrara fingers some letter-sized papers attached to one of the boxes.They list what's inside, taken from the scene of a double homicide: a red knit cap, bullets, potential drugs, a cigar.

Nearby, a Ukrop's shopping bag sits on a shelf. Plastic bags inside it contain the clothes of a woman who was abducted and raped.

Against a wall sit short boxes holding handguns and long boxes holding rifles. There are panes of glass from a breaking-and-entering case that may have caught skin tissue from the culprit — or an imprint from the tool used to pry it open.

There is a ventilated metal cabinet that holds potentially combustible or caustic materials taken from such places as suspected arson sites.

And on a top shelf, near the entrance to the room, there is a glowing bug zapper, "So anything that flies off …." says Seketta Z. Skoloda, her voice trailing away. Skoloda, security director for the Department of Forensic Science, explains that insects sometimes escape from bags of marijuana or shoeboxes of illegal mushrooms.

Nothing stays in this room. It is either waiting for the lab or waiting for a law-enforcement official to pick it up and take it away.

But in a small refrigerator are tiny vials capped with purple tops. These will ultimately become the permanent part of the DNA matching process.

They are blood samples collected from convicted felons. As part of the state's effort to develop a DNA data bank, the samples are sent upstairs, dried on a kind of soft white cardboard the size of a playing card and tucked into individual envelopes.

As Ferrara explains, evidence may come in and out of this room, but the DNA data bank will remain permanently — waiting to be matched with incoming evidence. "We can come back 500 years from now," Ferrara says, "and these samples are just like

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