Group: Courthouse flooded by Katrina still houses evidence

AP News
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Posted: May 03, 2016 4:16 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina flooded the New Orleans courthouse's ground floor and destroyed evidence in thousands of criminal cases, evidence is still being stored there — and a watchdog group said Tuesday that a less-vulnerable storage space is needed.

Court Watch NOLA called on city and court officials to form a working group to discuss a new storage site. The recommendation accompanied the volunteer group's annual report card on the city's criminal justice system.

The group says flooding submerged evidence in roughly 3,000 cases in 2005.

Simone Levine, executive director of the nonprofit, said court officials have a plan in place to move evidence if a storm threatens.

"However," she said at a news conference on the courthouse steps, "you cannot depend on human beings when it comes to storms here in Louisiana."

An emailed statement from the mayor's office said city officials are reviewing Court Watch NOLA's recommendations.

The city last year announced plans for a 64,000 square-foot facility to house a new police lab and evidence storage and processing. It is in the design stage and currently is projected for completion by mid-2018. Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell, often at odds with Mayor Mitch Landrieu over funding issues, said he does not believe the building will have enough space for his records and evidence.

Morrell said other options include storing evidence at the old Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail that is near the courts and could be easily secured. Inmates were moved to a new facility last year.

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Flood waters covered about 80 percent of New Orleans after the city's levees failed. Levee systems have been repaired and improved but flooding remains a concern when major storms threaten.

Morrell, who took office in 2006, said evidence was removed while the storage space was cleaned up. Remediation efforts made about a third of the damaged evidence useable in court cases again, Morrell said.

Morrell said much of the evidence in the courthouse ground floor is more than 3 feet off the ground, in accordance with guidelines his office was given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But a lot of it is on the ground because of limited space.

Current emergency plans call for evidence to be moved to upper floors when a major storm threatens. However, Morrell said, that will likely involve high costs, including around-the-clock security to make sure evidence isn't compromised, and personnel with expertise in storing and retrieving evidence in active cases.

Levine said flood vulnerability isn't the only problem with the ground-level storage of evidence. There are few security cameras in the area. It isn't climate-controlled, although the recent addition of a refrigerator for preservation of rape kits partially addressed that concern.