One of the worst evidentiary nightmares for a state prosecutor is when during pretrial period, the evidence is misplaced, tampered with, or lacks proper chain of custody. No prosecutor wants their case dismissed solely due to the mishandling of the evidence. Unfortunately, that may have become a reality for hundreds of Norfolk County drug cases.
In the spring of 2016, Braintree Police Chief Russell W. Jenkins ordered an audit of the Braintree Police Department when he suspected a problem with the handling of evidence that was being held in the Department's evidence room. The auditor conducted a comprehensive review of all evidence being held at the Department, some evidence dating as far back as 1999. As a result of the audit, it was revealed that thousands of pieces of drug evidence had been tampered with and over $400,000 of seized money and handguns had disappeared. The audit of the evidence room unveiled two reasons for the missing evidence: (1) the Department's failure to properly record evidence brought into the station and removed from the station between 2009 and 2012; and (2) the mishandling of evidence by Officer Susan Zopatti, who worked in the Braintree Police Department for 20 years and had been in charge of the evidence room since 2013.
Prior to the commencement of the audit and a week after the auditor questioned her about missing evidence, Officer Zopatti committed suicide. Some of the missing evidence has been found. Amazingly, some of the missing evidence was found at Zoppatti's home. It would appear that the Braintree Police Department will never locate most of the remaining missing evidence.
The mishandling of evidence and improper recording practices of the Braintree Police Department is not the first instance of evidence tampering and state misconduct in Massachusetts. Within the past several years, state drug labs have experienced shocking revelations regarding chemists tampering with evidence and improper recording practices. In the state drug lab cases, thousands of drug cases were reviewed and dismissed. What does this mean for the future of Norfolk County drug cases? According to Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, the office is facing the dismissal of hundreds of drug cases because of the tainted or lost evidence. Attorney Morrissey's office has already had to dismiss at least a dozen cases since the release of the audit details. The exact number of cases that will have to be dismissed is currently unknown, but is expected to increase substantially as the investigation continues.