Evidence still stored in basement of Clerk of Courts despite Katrina flooding

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by Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News dwoltering@wwltv.com

wwltv.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:03 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 22 at 12:32 PM

NEW ORLEANS - It was an image that showed Hurricane Katrina's crippling impact on justice in New Orleans. At least four feet of flooding following the storm damaged or destroyed much of the evidence the Clerk of Court was supposed to be protecting because it was secured in the basement.

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But the Clerk of Court is still storing the evidence in the basement.

"Well we want to move to a safer place," Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell. "But right now there's no other place in the building to move evidence."

Almost four years after Katrina, Morrell says the court building has no other space, only the basement to secure the evidence and he has taken steps to protect as well as possible.

"All evidence we have housed here is encased in a hard plastic that's sealed," he said. "So in case the water does get down there, at least it's preserved because they're in this heavily sealed plastic bag."

Morrell says he has so much evidence to store that he now uses a secret offsite location to store stuff that is not needed in active cases.

As of the first of the year, that site is no longer guarded by deputies on paid detail because the clerk's office had not paid them.

"They were owed $90,000 but they have been paid," he said. "The money was reimbursed from FEMA. So we have to wait til FEMA reimburses us the money to give to them."

Deputies working the detail declined our request for an interview, but Sheriff Marlin Gusman says they have told him about it as a courtesy and clerk still owes them $95,000.

"They haven't paid for work that they've done," said Gusman, " and they're considering taking action."

Morrell says the NOPD provided temporary security while he lined up a firm that now protects the offsite evidence with surveillance cameras and motion detectors. But no one is on guard at the place.

"It's not the best practice. We want to get into that."< /p>

Attorney rick tessier had a client who lost thousands of dollars that vanished from the police evidence room. He calls failure to secure the clerk's offsite evidence warehouse with guards shocking.

"God knows if there're guns in there, somebody could walk in and have a massacre. If there are drugs in there, somebody could be distributed on the streets and kill a little kid," he said.

Morrell says the long-range plan is to build a property and evidence facility as part of a larger complex on the corner of South White and Gravier streets, right next to the Criminal Court building.

"We have no idea," he said when asked when it might be completed.

Right now, he says FEMA funding for security has run out and neither the city nor his office can afford to provide on site guards.

The Clerk of Court says a design hasn't been approved yet for a new evidence facility. But if a hurricane threatens, he says he does have a plan to move the evidence to a safer location.

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