Impact of evidence thaw at coroner’s office still unclear

The two white refrigerators/freezers in the Kane County Coroner’s office look like ones you could find in anyone’s home, only the appliances are filled with evidence such as blood and organ samples.

And, just like when an appliance is turned off at home, the items inside could be lost.

Kane County prosecutors, public defenders and defense attorneys are awaiting a list of the evidence affected after a cleaning crew dealing with a mold issue at the coroner’s office turned off the refrigerators containing evidence in criminal cases dating from 2001 to this year.

Coroner Rob Russell’s staff is working to compile the list, but he said it entails a lot of work. There is no timetable when the list will be completed.

Prosecutors will have to cross reference the evidence with cases and disclose the incident in court to defense attorneys, Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said.

Until the list is developed, there is no way to know what evidence is effected or how.

“There may be no effect, it really depends on what they are looking for,” Dr. Ben Margolis, of Autopsy Center of Chicago, a medical pathologist who has testified in criminal court cases. He heard of the situation at the Kane County Coroner’s office in the media. “You’d have to go case-by-case or lab test by lab test to interpret it.”

The evidence should not be disregarded but new tests may be required, he said.

A way to think about it is when authorities find a body right after death or a couple of days after, Margolis said. Either way, you can collect the samples to test but blood collected a couple of days after death may need additional interpretations, he said.

“You may have to build some uncertainty into the results,” he added.

It also depends on what type of evidence is being preserved, Margolis said. Some DNA labs request samples be sent at room temperature while other samples are fragile, he said.

If samples were taken for toxicology or DNA testing, the samples should be kept frozen to keep it from degrading, he said. For example, blood in driving under the influence cases could develop bacteria if thawed out, he said.

“You want to be careful but it is certainly not an all is lost situation,” Margolis said.

Public Defender Kelli Childress said she also learned about the incident through media reports. She has not spoken to the coroner’s office or the state’s attorney’s office but doesn’t expect to unless her cases are affected.

“Right now, I just don’t know enough to be concerned,” Childress said. Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon “is reviewing everything that may be compromised. There’s no doubt he will let me know if it involves any of my cases or if anyone’s rights were violated.”

The Coroner’s office has been under scrutiny for its budget and Kane County Chairman Chris Lauzen has requested an audit of all autopsies the coroner’s office conducted last year. Both are unrelated to the refrigerator incident.

The mishap occurred while a clean-up crew turned off a light switch in the coroner’s office not knowing the switch also turned off the refrigerator, Russell said.

The light switch did not have a sign on it indicating crews should not touch it or indicating the refrigerators were connected to it, McMahon said.

Russell was out of town at a convention when the clean-up work was done.

When the mold remediation process started coroner’s employees were given 48 hours to leave the building for the crew to complete the work, Russell said. The refrigerators were secured and left on when the employees left.

The clean-up occurred from a Thursday to the following Monday, he said. An employee noticed the refrigerators were warm on that Monday, he said.

Despite the incident involving the evidence, Childress did not express any concerns about the coroner’s ability to secure and preserve evidence.

“I believe this is an anomaly,” Childress said. But she also said she would hope to learn more about the levels of security within the coroner’s office once the inventory is done.

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