Backlog in electronic evidence causing delays in sex abuse charges

Investigations

Detective Keith Anthony has been with the Mechanicsburg Police Department for 20 years and handles a lot of sexual abuse cases.

“We are getting better at finding it, catching it, and prosecuting it,” said Anthony

Computer forensic evidence can play a huge roll in some cases. Computer forensic specialists can process computers, cell phones, and laptops to find evidence of child pornography, explicit pictures, or even conversations between a victim and abuser.

Getting that evidence can take time.

“I have a case I have been working on and it’s been probably seven months. I just made a phone call on it and we are probably looking at another month or two until I get all of the information. It can even take about a year in some of the larger cases,” said Anthony

Anthony sends evidence to the state Attorney General’s office, Pennsylvania State Police, and the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office for processing. The agencies are not only processing evidence for local departments but its own as well.

“In the criminal justice system, there are only so many places that we can take electronic evidence and submit it that it will stand the scrutiny of the courtroom and it’s being done in the proper manner, but they only have so many people that can do those processes and until it gets to your turn, there’s a backlog. There’s just not enough,” said Anthony.

The Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office has one part-time staff member who processed 102 cases in 2018. Five of those cases were sexual assaults, which generated 40 items of evidence alone. The county aims for a 30-day turnaround.

Pennsylvania State Police processed 3,266 pieces of evidence last year; 429 were for local police departments. State Police do not have a typical turnaround time and would only say its task force is fully staffed. 

While some believe increasing staff will help address the backlog, others say that’s only part of the problem. 

“We still aren’t believing,” said Kristen Hauser, the chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

PCAR works to end sexual violence and advocates for the rights and needs of all sexual assault victims.

“When the public insists on having corroborating evidence before they are even willing to entertain that a charge is appropriate, we are part of the problem,” said Hauser.

Delays in charges can also lead to some victims giving up.

“It is really normal that people want to try to get back to their lives as they were before the assault, and when you are stuck in a perpetual state of waiting to see what will happen and you’ve done the things you think were the right things to do – reporting to the police, getting evidence collected, you have made your statement and it grinds to a halt – it can be a very demoralizing experience,” said Hauser. 

Hauser says for some cases, the victim’s word should be enough and there’s no need to wait for the digital evidence to file charges.

“It comes down to is that supplemental or is that the basis? If [the electronic evidence] is the basis, absolutely you need it. If it’s supplemental to other things, the preliminary hearing is just there to say is there enough to bring this forward?” said Hauser. 

Police also have a timeline to consider when digital evidence is necessary for the case.

“Once I file those charges, I have 180 days. Everyone has the right to a speedy trial. I want to make sure the evidence is in and there before we do that charge, so I have that understanding that we have to wait. We only get one chance to prosecute them,” said Anthony.

In a statement to ABC27, a state police spokesman said Acting Commissioner Robert Evanchick is aware of the issues surrounding digital evidence and the importance of processing it in a timely manner.

The Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office is actively seeking grants and funding to hire a full-time computer forensic specialist.

ABC27 reached to the state Attorney General’s office, but it did not provide information on how much evidence it is processing for local departments. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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