Changes made after Clerk of Court Office workers accused in thefts
“I won’t say it was one of the worst, but it was not a good situation.” Shannon Turner, consultant hired to establish procedures and policies for a more secure evidence room at the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s Office
More cameras and locks, written logs and random drug testing are a few of the preventive measures now in place in the wake of an East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s Office employee’s December arrest in the theft of drugs and guns from the clerk’s evidence vault at the downtown state district courthouse, some of the judges were told Wednesday.
“I won’t say it was one of the worst” evidence rooms in terms of security, “but it was not a good situation,” Shannon Turner, a consultant hired to establish new procedures and policies to ensure no future security breaches of the evidence room, said during a meeting of the 19th Judicial District Court judges.
Now, Turner said, the clerk’s office has one of the best evidence management systems in the country.
“It is wonderful,” said Turner, who is based in Seattle.
Seven of the 19th JDC’s 15 judges heard Turner’s presentation, including current Chief Judge Trudy White.
“I’m very confident with the changes made in the evidence room,” White said after the meeting. “It is now state of the art.”
“It is absolutely critical that the evidence room is perfect,” the judge added, noting that evidence problems can affect a defendant’s life and liberty, and also affect crime victims.
Clerk of Court Doug Welborn said after the judges’ meeting that the new measures have cost $300,000 to date.
An independent accountants’ report, which was ordered in December by then-Chief Judge Mike Erwin and is dated April 15, shows that a physical inventory of the evidence in 9,500 criminal case files at the clerk’s office revealed numerous missing exhibits, including guns, drugs, money and other items.
White said the discrepancies found will not affect pending cases.
Welborn said changes were planned for the evidence room even before William Bates Colvin, the son of 19th JDC Judge Kay Bates, and fellow Clerk of Court employee Debra Vicknair Bell were arrested in mid-December on malfeasance in office and drug charges.
The arrests, Welborn said, sped up the planned changes.
Under the new system, Welborn said, authorized personnel can find out down to the gram the quantity of drugs in the evidence room.
“We know now this will never happen again,” he said. “This is as close to perfect as you can come.”
Colvin, 31, of Baton Rouge, and Bell, 55, of Maurepas, are on unpaid administrative leave while their criminal charges are pending, Welborn noted.
Turner said the new and improved evidence management procedures include a dual-lock system and fingerprint reader on the evidence room door; additional cameras in the room and hallway leading to the room; creation of a camera-equipped evidence receiving room in the clerk’s office; a two-person intake and storage policy featuring bar codes; and a written log of all persons entering the evidence room.
All existing evidence has been inventoried in a time-consuming and laborious procedure and sealed with evidence tape, she added.
“How can you effectively manage evidence when you don’t know what you have?” Turner asked rhetorically during the judges’ meeting.
“My biggest concern was things were not sealed,” she said later to reporters outside the courthouse.
Turner also said new evidence management and tracking software will now allow the District Attorney’s Office to access the evidence databases of the Sheriff’s Office and Baton Rouge Police Department via the Internet, giving the District Attorney’s Office one common location for all evidence information rather than on paper in individual files.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III welcomed the development, saying fewer hands touching evidence will make for more secure evidence.
Colvin is charged with stealing roughly 48 pounds of cocaine and seven firearms from the clerk of court’s evidence vault. His defense attorney has said he was suffering from substance-abuse issues at the time and was extorted by co-defendants.
Colvin has admitted smuggling cocaine from the vault and distributing it for profit — to the tune of $200,000.
Bell’s son, 29-year-old Colt Bell, and Terrance Sloan Ramirez, 30, are accused of extorting Colvin to commit more thefts from the evidence vault. Also charged with possession of stolen cocaine are Baton Rouge residents Deroy Joseph, 40, and Larry Collins, 26.
The criminal proceedings involving Colvin and his co-defendants have been delayed by a dispute over which judge should preside over the case.
After all but two 19th JDC judges recused themselves.
Colvin’s case was randomly shuffled to District Judge Janice Clark, a colleague of Bates who primarily handles civil matters. Prosecutors have challenged what they called an “illegal allotment,” saying the clerk of court should have assigned the case to District Judge Don Johnson, as he primarily handles criminal cases and, like Clark, did not recuse himself.
Colvin’s attorney, Frank Holthaus, contends the assignment of the case to Clark was entirely proper.
The matter is now in the hands of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Court documents filed recently by the District Attorney’s Office revealed that Colvin told his fiancée in recorded jail phone calls that he expects to get a deal when his case is resolved because of his connections in the courthouse.