Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dexter, Miami Metro, and the Broken Chain of Custody

[First read the introductory post, Meet Dexter Morgan.]  In “Dex Takes a Holiday,” Dexter uses his three-day mini-vacation away from Rita to target his next victim, Zoey Kruger.  (This, Dexter explains, is a serial killer’s way of recharging his batteries.)  But Zoey isn’t Dexter’s typical victim.  Instead, she’s one of his own: a cop.  Granted, she’s a bad cop—one that killed her husband and child to escape the unbearable suffocation of domesticity—but a cop nonetheless.  Dexter begins, as he usually does, by gathering solid evidence.  While prosecutors like Miguel Prado may go after defendants by filing a criminal complaint first, and then creating evidence later, Dexter is more careful.  He knows that his targets face a stiffer penalty than all but a handful of Miami’s criminal defendants.  So when Zoey puts her house on the market—after all, who needs four bedrooms and a big yard when you’ve just murdered your husband and daughter?—Dexter attends the open house.  While there, he gets what he needs: physical evidence.  He finds a small part of the glove that Zoey wore when she did the deeds.  The glove fragment has the gunshot residue and the blood evidence necessary to link Zoey to the double murder—the proof that Dexter’s moral code requires before he can drug Zoey, immobilize her, stab her, slice her into neat little pieces, and send her to her final home below sea level.

But why not just turn Zoey in to the authorities and let the prosecutor deal with her?  Dexter seems to think, as he often does, that any such above-board efforts at justice would fail.  In this episode, Dexter blames a defendant-oriented technicality: the dreaded chain of custody.

The chain of custody concept is introduced when Zoey confronts Dexter about his off-the-record investigation into the untimely death of her family.  Dexter responds with a serious revelation: “I know what you did.  I have proof.”  He then tells her about the glove evidence that he collected from her home.  Zoey seems to acknowledge the evidentiary power that the glove would have in court, but she’s not throwing in the towel.  After all, she’s a cop, and she knows something about evidence and the law.  So she replies, albeit with some trepidation, “There’s no chain of custody.”

The chain of custody problem is a recurring theme throughout the series.  Not surprisingly, then, Dexter seems to concede that this would be a legitimate roadblock standing in the way of a conviction.  However, Zoey is wise to be less than confident in asserting such a defense to a murder charge—or to any charge for that matter.

First, contrary to Zoey’s assertion, there is a chain of custody for the glove evidence that Dexter discovered.  The chain of custody witness would be Dexter, who would testify in court that he took the evidence from Zoey’s home, transported it to the Miami Metro crime lab, tested it, put it in a locker at the police station, and then took it from the locker and transported it to the courtroom for Zoey’s murder trial.  Done!  It’s that simple.  And second, in reality, it might even be simpler, as the chain of custody is one of the lowest hurdles that a prosecutor must leap to win a conviction in court.

The case of United States v. Lott gives a nice illustration of just how broken the government’s chain of custody can be.[i]  In Lott, the defendant appealed his conviction for drug distribution because, his lawyer argued, the government failed to prove that the evidence taken by the police was the same evidence that was tested by the chemist and presented in court.  In other words, there was a chain of custody problem.
Much of the physical evidence against Lott followed a long, winding route that was much more convoluted than the glove that Dexter collected from Zoey’s open house.  Lott’s chain of custody—if you can keep up—went something like this:

(1) Cop A took some pieces of evidence from the Holiday Inn; (2) Cop A gave the evidence to Cop B, who had taken other pieces of evidence from Lott’s car; (3) Cop B took the evidence to the DEA field office; (4) someone took the evidence from the DEA field office to the DEA crime lab and put it into storage; (5) a chemist took the evidence out of storage to test it, and then put it back into storage; (6) someone then took the evidence from the DEA crime lab to the U.S. Attorney’s Office; and (7) someone took the evidence from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the courthouse for trial.[ii]

All of that is well and good, and may even be typical in drug cases like this.  But at trial, the government didn’t present nearly as much evidence as that outlined above.  Instead, there were “missing links” in the chain of custody.  For example, for some pieces of evidence, there was no testimony about how they got “from the Holiday Inn to the DEA field office.”[iii]  For other pieces of evidence, there was no testimony about how they got “from the DEA field office to the DEA laboratory.”[iv]  Instead, the prosecutor simply had Cops A and B look at the pieces of evidence at trial, and then testify that they “recognized” those items as the same items they took from Holiday Inn and from Lott’s car.[v]

This limited testimony left some obvious and glaring gaps in the chain of custody.  And because the trial happened years after Cops A and B actually collected the physical evidence, no one could seriously believe that the cops really recognized the evidence as the same items that they collected.  After all, if you’ve seen one “mouthwash bottle” and “gasoline can”—the pieces of evidence the government used to convict Lott—you’ve seen them all.

So did Mr. Lott get a new trial?  Not quite.  In fact, the Federal Court of Appeals decided that the chain of custody was just fine.  It also held that the government “does not have to exclude all possibilities of tampering with the evidence,”[vi] and further held that there is a “presumption that the government’s agents properly performed their duties.”[vii]  So even though the government never proved at trial that the items tested were the same items taken from the Holiday Inn or from Lott’s car, or that the items were not tampered with, Mr. Lott’s conviction stands.

Returning, then, to Dexter and Zoey Kruger: if Dexter was the only witness necessary to establish an air-tight chain of custody, and if the government doesn’t even need an air-tight chain of custody to win a conviction in court, why was the chain of custody such a big deal between Dexter and Zoey?  Most likely, the writers had to create some type of technicality that doesn’t really exist.  Without such a technicality standing in the way of a conviction in court, Zoey could have been adequately dealt with in the criminal justice system—instead of by Dexter.  And if that were the case, Dexter wouldn’t be morally justified in slicing her up into several smaller pieces.  And if that were the case, and Dexter killed her anyway, we fans might not love Dexter as much.  (Although, after three full seasons by this point, I think that most of us would have allowed our favorite serial killer this minor transgression.)

Dramatizing the chain of custody and turning it into an insurmountable hurdle—one that supposedly operates to prevent the good guys from getting the bad guys—served a critical function in the episode, and throughout the series.  But, even with this fictional chain of custody problem, was Dexter really justified in killing Zoey Kruger?  Perhaps yes, from a punishment perspective—but probably not from a utilitarian perspective.  That is, Zoey wasn’t likely to kill again.  Admittedly, she did kill her husband and child to escape her domestic shackles, but as far as we know she hadn’t killed anyone else before or since.  It’s also not likely that she’d make that same mistake—marriage and children—again, so future victims were at best a mere possibility.  Food for thought.

[i] United States v. Lott, 854 F.2d 244 (7th Cir. 1988).
[ii] Ibid. at 249-51.
[iii] Ibid. at 250.
[iv] Ibid. at 249.
[v] Ibid. at 250.
[vi] Ibid. at 250.
[vii] Ibid. at 251.

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