Couple sues state over mishandled evidence

DOVER — A Sussex County couple has sued the state, several employees and two agencies in connection with reported widespread internal misconduct that brought dissolution of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Forensic Sciences Laboratory in 2014.

According to the 27-page lawsuit filed on Jan. 13, Jermaine Dollard spent nearly three years in prison after a wrongful conviction based on mishandling of alleged drug evidence that later led to dropped charges and release by the Delaware Department of Justice.

Court documents stated that while the medical examiner’s controlled substances laboratory initially had deemed a powdery substance found in Mr. Dollard’s car during a June 13, 2012, traffic stop to be cocaine, a retest in November 2014 showed the bricks held in evidence were powdered sugar.

In the October trial of Mr. Dollard, a medical examiner chemist testified evidence found in the vehicle tested to be cocaine; Mr. Dollard was convicted on Nov. 6, 2013, of aggravated possession of Tier 5 cocaine, drug dealing of Tier 4 cocaine, and second-degree conspiracy, all felonies, and misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.

On Jan. 14, 2014, Mr. Dollard was sentenced to separate consecutive 10-year prison sentences, according to the lawsuit. He appealed the conviction and 20-year sentence to the Delaware Supreme Court.

Defense attorney Alex Funk, who filed the suit along with Patrick Gallagher, pushed to retest evidence in Mr. Dollard’s case after news of a scandal within the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s drug lab broke just days after the sentence.

As an appeal in Mr. Dollard’s case was pending, the Department of Justice acknowledged in a later that indicated two medical examiner employees who handled the alleged drug evidence had been charged criminally regarding their overall work at the drug lab, papers said.

Mr. Dollard’s counsel filed for a new trial in November 2014, which brought the retesting that confirmed the white powdered sugar as evidence, papers said. The state dropped the charges and set Mr. Dollar free.

Investigation into possible illegal medical examiner lab operations by the justice department and Delaware State Police was considered an active criminal investigation, papers said.

On June 19, 2014, a state police and the justice department report outlined systemic operational failings at the medical examiner office “resulted in an environment in which drug evidence could be lost, stolen or altered, thereby negatively impacting the integrity of many prosecutions,” according to papers.

Systemic failings cited

According to documents, systemic failings cited in the report included lack of management, oversight, security and effective policies and “As a result of the systemic failures, evidence in several cases has been lost or stolen.”

The medical examiner’s laboratory has since been replaced by the Division of Forensic Science under the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Previously, the Department of Health and Social Services was responsible for its operations.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for defendant Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees the Delaware State Police, declined comment.

“The Department of Safety and Homeland Security does not comment on pending litigation,” spokeswoman Kimberly Chandler said.

Also, “The Department of Health and Social Services does not comment on active litigation,” according to spokeswoman Jill Fredel. The DHSS oversaw the medical examiner’s controlled substance laboratory at the time questions about its operations arose.

The lawsuit alleged defendants and/or a third party “were able to plant evidence in a vehicle belonging to Mr. Dollard, manipulate evidence allegedly located in the vehicle … so as to wrongfully convict him, steal evidence .. in the vehicle, and/or ‘dry lab’ the evidence allegedly located in the vehicle …

“As a result of some or all of these actions, Mr. Dollard was wrongfully convicted of crimes for which he was sentenced and served nearly two years of incarceration.”

Damages sought, detailed

Besides the prison time, the lawsuit claims Mr. Dollard was damaged by:

• Severe emotional distress and mental anguish …

• Reduced quality of life, including missing significant events with his wife and family, due to his imprisonment, emotional distress and mental anguish

• Reduced ability to obtain suitable employment …

• Special damages in the form of medical expenses for psychiatric/psychological treatment and lost wages

• A violation of his Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendment rights.

The lawsuit alleged Mr. Dollard’s wife, Keisha was damaged by:

• Loss of quality time with her husband while he was imprisoned based on fabricated/falsified evidence

• Loss of companionship, comfort and services of Mr. Dollard while imprisoned …

• Loss of assistance from Mr. Dollard to raise the couple’s children …

• Emotional distress and mental anguish resulting from Mr. Dollard’s incarceration

• Such other damages that Mrs. Dollard can prove.

Mr. and Mrs. Dollard are seeking a favorable judgment that brings compensatory, special and damage awards, attorney’s fees for prosecution the matter, and other relief that the court deems appropriate.

Defendants in the suit include former Office of Chief Medical Examiner director Richard Callery, administrator Hal Brown, several medical examiner and Delaware State Police employees at the time of alleged incidents, the State of Delaware, Department of Health and Social Services’ Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Forensic Sciences Laboratory and Department of Safety and Homeland and Homeland Security’s State Police division.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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