March 22, 2006
Tulane University legal expert Katherine Mattes and toxicologist LuAnn White recently journeyed into hotly debated territory: the evidence rooms of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court. The purpose of their trip, in the company of two associate clerks of court and a camera crew, was to document the current status of evidence stored in those basement-level rooms that filled with four feet of floodwater after Hurricane Katrina.
Mattes, deputy director of the Tulane Criminal Law Clinic, explains that the recording will be necessary as criminal cases come up for trial in Orleans Parish. The clinic, along with the Loyola Criminal Law Clinic, has been asked to represent indigent defendants because the Orleans Parish public defenders office has been crippled by staff shortages and a minimal budget.
"One of the questions has been the condition of the evidence that will be presented at trials in these criminal cases," explains Mattes. The evidence rooms remain largely untouched since Hurricane Katrina, other than bringing in equipment to dry them out.
She and her colleagues asked for and received an order from the court to go to the evidence rooms and film the current situation. She then asked White, director of the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health, for environmental health and safety assistance with the visit. White provided masks and hazmat suits for the team.
Their four-hour tour required a generator for lighting, since the building at the corner of Broad and Tulane has no electricity. The rooms contain evidence in boxes or envelopes, labeled according to the case they relate to, and stored on shelves or in metal file cabinets.
"It was a lot dryer than I expected," White says. "It wasn't nearly as bad as some of the homes we'd gone into that were just covered with mold. Although it smelled musty down there, there was not an overwhelming odor that would indicate bacterial contamination, either."
Nevertheless, according to both White and Mattes, the bags and boxes on the lower shelves in those rooms had both floated to different locations in the floodwater. Metal objects rusted. A thin layer of mold covered the boxes and envelopes that had stayed on their shelves above the water line.
"I can't tell you how many guns we saw in there," says White. Although the team did not open or move boxes or envelopes, they did have to step over and around a vast collection of items considered to be evidence in court cases, including clothing, shoes, baby strollers and stop signs.
"The primary purpose was to memorialize this on video," says Mattes. She will give copies of the 90- minute video, which she narrated, to the Orleans Parish Criminal Court, the offices of the Clerk of Court, the Judicial Administrators, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, and the Louisiana State Supreme Court.
White says remediation will have to be handled carefully.
"Usually we recommend that all porous materials, like paper and cardboard, be destroyed, but obviously that cannot be done with evidence," says White. "It's an interesting multidisciplinary effort because people--probably experts in document restoration--will have to do this with an eye toward what the legal side needs to preserve for evidence and with the help of toxicologists. Each package of material will have to be reviewed individually to decide how to preserve the contents."
Although tests have not been conducted on materials in the evidence rooms, White says she saw no signs of sewage water or other chemical contaminants. However, she cautions that the bags and boxes may contain materials that were disrupted during the hurricane and flooding. Remediators will have to protect themselves against inhaling or touching substances, such as cocaine or other drugs, that have been stored in those rooms. Neither White nor Mattes will be involved in recovering and restoring the contents of the rooms.