EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Chain of Fools, Take 5: Chain of Custody & The Failure to Properly Seal Blood Evidence

In Episode 4 of the Undisclosed Podcast, Susan Simpson noted a disturbing discovery regarding the blood samples used to determine the source of the stains found on the t-shirt in Hae Min Lee's car. While the seal on the blood sample for Jay was intact at the time it was tested, the blood samples for both Hae and Adnan Syed had been inexplicably broken before they were tested. As I noted on the episode, this should have formed the basis for a chain of custody objection by defense counsel.

I've noted before that


the proponent of evidence (e.g., drugs seized from the defendant) uses the chain of custody (evidence or proffers from everyone who handled the evidence) to satisfy the requirement that the evidence introduced at trial is that same evidence (e.g., the drugs) in substantially the same condition. If problems with the chain of custody make it so that there is not a reasonable probability of sameness (e.g., there is a decent chance the drugs were cross-contaminated), the evidence is inadmissible. If, despite problems with the chain of custody, there is still a reasonable probability of sameness, the evidence is still admissible, and the problems merely go to the weight of the evidence (e.g., how much weight the jury should give the evidence).

Here's the Chain of Custody Form for the blood evidence in the Adnan Syed case. As you can see, the form has both (1) property numbers for each of the blood samples; and (2) the date and time for each person who handled the blood evidence.

As such, Adnan's case was not a case in which there were gaps in the chain of custody for blood evidence, leading to its inadmissibility, as in State v. Carney, 714 P.2d 532 (Mont. 1986) That said, Adnan's case was clearly a case in which blood samples were improperly sealed, which could have led to defense counsel claiming that the samples (and any tests done on them) were inadmissible due to chain of custody concerns. That was the case in State v. Wright, 426 N.W.2d 3 (N.D. 1988), in which the court sustained the defendant's argument "that the results of the blood-alcohol test should have been excluded because the vial was not properly sealed and labeled as required in the directions for sample collection issued by the State Toxicologist."*

Indeed, the entire point of sealing evidence is to make sure that there is not cross-contamination, meaning that the failure to properly seal evidence creates serious issues. See, e.g.,  Cooper v. Brown, 510 F.3d 870 (9th Cir. 2007).

[Update: Here's more on the blood testing from the Undisclosed website.].


*State v. Nygaard, 426 N.W.2d 547 (N.D. 1988), is a similar case from the same court reaching the same result.



| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Chain of Fools, Take 5: Chain of Custody & The Failure to Properly Seal Blood Evidence:


Unrelated, but in the past you've claimed the handwritten schedule Adnan gave up to 2:15 “pretty clearly only documents Adnan's school day,” and you are “not aware of there being a page 2.” However, according to this August 25 note from one of CG's clerks, this document was “a handwritten account of his recollection of his whereabouts on Jan 13 and his efforts in ensuring Hae had a proper memorial service.” Obviously, there was more to this document. Can you please post it?


Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 28, 2015 9:09:24 AM

Seamus: Thanks for the reminder. That's actually an important note because it shows the role Adnan took in Hae's memorial service, which contradicts the argument made by the State in its brief. The notes in question are 1+ pages of notes on the memorial service followed by Adnan's notes about what he did during the school day. For some reason, the linked image is cropped, but the school day notes are actually followed by 10 blank lines, not 2. I will do a future post about this.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 28, 2015 9:22:32 AM

So if that's all there is of "his recollection of his whereabouts on Jan 13," is the clerk implying he doesn't remember anything after 2:15?

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 28, 2015 9:32:56 AM

Those same notes by the clerk indicate that Adnan said he recalled going to track practice/talking to his coach about leading prayers and getting a call from Hae's brother/a police officer.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 28, 2015 9:43:15 AM

Why is the first entry in September? I thought the samples were collected long before that.

Posted by: JoeJim | May 28, 2015 10:20:50 AM

While it is not proof of anything, the fact that Adnan's sample is labeled as WM17 (17 year old white male) suggests that the sample was collected before May 1999, when he turned 18. So why does the chain of custody log only start in September?

Posted by: JoeJim | May 28, 2015 10:59:26 AM

"Those same notes by the clerk indicate that Adnan said he recalled going to track practice/talking to his coach about leading prayers and getting a call from Hae's brother/a police officer."

So where are those notes? This was typed up on August 25, four days after the clerk spoke to Adnan. Obviously either he or Adnan wrote down notes on the rest of the day post 2:15.

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 28, 2015 11:13:19 AM

JoeJim: These are very good questions. I wish I knew.

Seamus: As I said, there's the memo, and there's notes from Adnan about the memorial and his school day. There are no additional notes or memos from this visit with Adnan. We do, however, have the notes from two other visits, in which Asia/the library and track practice are listed as part of what Adnan did on January 13th. From the memo posted here, it seems clear that Adnan has some recollection of post-track events, but not enough to have specific times down like he did for school, library, and track.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 28, 2015 11:18:56 AM

As someone concerned with evidence, do you find it disturbing that so much of it seems to be missing from Gutierrez's file? For example, we know that Drew Davis was very concerned about Adnan’s Ramadan conversation when he spoke to Coach Sye. However, you’ve said there are just a few short notes from Gutierrez about Davis and Sye, which do not mention the Ramadan conversation.

Similarly, we have a document here in which the clerk says Adnan wrote down his recollections of January 13 in his own handwriting, and in fact the clerk cites several things Adnan supposedly remembers that happened after 2:15. However the handwritten notes stop at 2:15.

What conclusion would you expect your students to draw?

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 28, 2015 1:21:43 PM

Seamus: The lack of additional notes about Coach Sye greatly disturbs me. As Susan Simpson has shown, the police interview with Sye makes clear that he recalled speaking to Adnan on 1/13, but there appears to have been some communication breakdown between Davis and Gutierrez. There’s a solid chance that Sye could have been a great alibi witness at trial, but Gutierrez seems to have dropped the ball on that one.

Regarding the notes on Adnan’s recollection of January 13th, as I said, those notes have his school day up until 2:15, followed by ten blank lines. It seems clear that was the complete document, and other documents in Adnan’s file show that he placed Asia/the library and track practice in his January 13th timeline.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 28, 2015 1:43:39 PM

@Seamus Duncan. Is it possible for you to keep your comments on topic? If you were my student you'd be standing outside the door with your hands on your head for continually interrupting the class!

Posted by: Sue | May 28, 2015 1:48:24 PM

"There’s a solid chance that Sye could have been a great alibi witness at trial, but Gutierrez seems to have dropped the ball on that one."

In the second trial, Gutierrez specifically asked a question that set up Coach Sye to discuss the Ramadan conversation. She mentioned this conversation again in the closing argument. So clearly she knew this could be important. It doesn’t seem she dropped the ball at all.

Given this, and the fact that the transcript of this day is missing ONLY page 108, the page with Sye’s cross examination, wouldn’t you agree that the most likely conclusion is that someone removed the evidence related to Coach Sye AFTER the trial? Consider the “Chain of custody” of the documents themselves.

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 28, 2015 2:28:24 PM

JoeJim: The DNA sample from Adnan was collected March 25th. (The sample from Jay was collected on April 13th.)

There are no records that mention the sample until the Chain of Custody log mentions a Sept. 24th transfer to Bianca at 4pm, and then another transfer 50 minutes later to Stangroom.

Posted by: Susan Simpson | May 28, 2015 2:44:51 PM

I have no science background, but something has had me wondering about the bloody shirt. Wouldn't Hae's brother be a significant match to the blood on the shirt? With the shirt having previously been his, wouldn't it stand to reason that the blood on the shirt could have been his, unless his DNA was compared along with Hae's and the shirt sample?

Posted by: BeOhBe | May 28, 2015 3:16:39 PM

Seamus: She asked him, but the key was to pinpoint the date based on weather.

Susan: Thanks.

BeOhBe: Good point, and probably why they asked him at trial whether the stains were there when he gave his sister the t-shirt.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 28, 2015 4:54:04 PM

Post a comment