Weber County prosecutors are trying to determine which of their cases have solid footing and which have crumbled after a scandal in which the sheriff’s office evidence technician admitted to stealing methamphetamine from the evidence room.
County Attorney Christopher Allred said the number of cases affected depends on how much evidence is determined to have been tampered with. An audit of the room, which was found to be in complete disarray, is expected to take more than a year.
Luckily, Allred said, evidence technician Candy Follum was courteous enough to mostly steal meth that was scheduled to be destroyed.
“Most of the evidence that has been tampered with is evidence that has already been adjudicated,” he said.
The Weber County Attorney’s Office has had issues with evidence stored at the sheriff’s office for about two years. According to an internal investigation done by the sheriff’s office, prosecutors often had to make multiple requests that evidence be sent to a crime lab, and sometimes it took months before the evidence was ever sent. Other times, it was never sent.
“We have definitely had to compromise some cases because evidence has been tampered with,” Allred said of the prior delays. “We have had to dismiss some, I don’t know how many.”
The reason for the delays was made public last week when the sheriff’s office released an internal report. Follum, the evidence technician, was stealing evidence and eating meth on the job — and it became a daily occurrence.
After she was caught being high at work in December, an investigation was opened, and in January she was fired.
Follum also was horribly disorganized, the investigation found, and the evidence room was a mess. Often, the problem wasn’t that Follum had stolen evidence in a case, but that she couldn’t find it.
That problem, Allred said, is likely to be ongoing. According to the investigation report, it will take “tens of thousands of man-hours” to sort everything out.
Defense attorney Randy Richards, who handles a lot of cases in Weber County, said everything in that evidence room is now suspect — and vulnerable to legal challenges raised by the defense — because it was handled by someone who admitted to being high on meth at work on a daily basis.
“I would have the question, is it the right drug?” Richards said. “Was the original substance even a drug at all?
“Who knows? I mean we have an evidence custodian that is willing to steal evidence. How do we trust that any of the evidence in there is accurately documented and accurately preserved?”
Some things, such as a knife that was photographically documented at a scene and then placed in the evidence room, would likely still be admitted in court. But drugs and DNA evidence could be more easily attacked by a defense attorney.
Allred said that once the sheriff’s office is able to determine what evidence is still in the room and what was stolen by Follum, he will file criminal charges against her. After that, he said he will run the numbers to try and figure out how many cases were affected.
In the meantime, the number of tainted cases will likely continue to grow. If evidence in a case was stolen — especially a drug case — it will likely fall apart. The same could be true for evidence that is simply lost amid the heap of boxes and files that is the Weber County Sheriff’s Office evidence room.
Defense attorneys could demand their client’s right to a preliminary hearing within 10 days of being charged — a right that is often waived.
Richards said he also could argue that if a case is being prolonged while prosecutors wait for evidence to be found and processed, his client’s right to a speedy trial is being infringed upon.
Utah statute does not provide a specific time frame for a speedy trial, just that it can’t be unreasonably delayed.
“Because of poor administration of the evidence custodian, it is delayed out significantly? Yeah, I think that is a constitutional violation,” Richards said.
Allred said the defense attorneys involved are aware of the situation and have a variety of grounds to challenge the cases, whether through court motions or face-to-face negotiations with prosecutors.
It will be a while until all involved can put the scandal to bed.
“It’s a big issue,” Allred said. “Obviously the fact that we have had to dismiss cases because of the inability to provide that evidence or because the evidence has been tampered with ... it directly impacts what we do as prosecutors.”
Richards said that as an attorney who handles a lot of drug cases, he was surprised prosecutors didn’t call him to inform him of the evidence issues.
“I learned about it from The Salt Lake Tribune,” he said. “And I do a lot of cases in Weber County. It’s troubling, because I wouldn’t have known.”