Document Dilemma

The state-mandated destruction of public records can literally mean the difference between life and death

Every day, an overwhelming number of documents are created and received by public officials and employees of the state of Arizona. But as records pile up, public policy--and, in some cases, state law--mandates that many of those documents be destroyed.

While the destruction of records may make little difference within most government agencies, it has the potential to make a huge difference in law enforcement. In some cases, destroyed records may mean that a guilty person goes free; in others, it may result in an innocent person spending their life in prison. In death-penalty cases, it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

William Heirens, a prisoner at Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois for the last 59 years, may be a perfect example of how records destruction in Arizona can ruin a life.

According to professor Robert Schehr, director of the Northern Arizona Justice Project and chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, a young girl named Suzanne Degnan was brutally murdered in the 1940s, her body found stuffed in a sewer in Chicago. Heirens--a University of Chicago student at the time--was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to life in 1946. Heirens, now 76 years old, has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence.

In 1946, Richard Russell Thomas of Phoenix was arrested and imprisoned for a similar crime in Phoenix. The Phoenix Police Department recognized the similarities between the two murders and found out that Thomas had been in Chicago at the time of the Degnan murder. The Phoenix Police Department believed Thomas had committed the Degnan murder and called the Chicago Police Department to pass the information on. According to Schehr, the Chicago Police Department essentially told the Phoenix cops that they had already nailed the perpetrator and weren't interested in further information.

Heirens appealed to the Chicago-based Center for Wrongful Convictions for help. Although the project is willing to help, Thomas has since died in an Arizona prison. But the Arizona Department of Corrections' records only list Thomas only as a prisoner; further records have not been found and are presumed to have been destroyed.

Heirens will likely die in prison, still proclaiming his innocence.

Laurie Sletten, the director of records management of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, refers to Article 3 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, which spells out: "All records made or received by public officials or employees of this state in the course of their public duties are the property of the state." Records are defined as "all books, papers, maps, photographs or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics ..."

Sletten says her office provides all agencies of the state with a Records Retention and Disposition Schedule that reads: "The following retention schedule periods represent the maximum time records may be kept. Unless records relate to pending or current litigation or are necessary for an audit, keeping records beyond their retention period is illegal. If you believe that special circumstances warrant the extension of any of these retention periods, that records should be kept longer than the period listed below or that any of these record series may be appropriate for transfer to the Archives, please contact the Records Management Division to inquire about a change to the retention period. Only the Records Management Division has the authority to extend record retention periods."

Rob Warden, executive director of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, sees records destruction as a huge problem.

"If records and evidence are destroyed, wrongful convictions are difficult to prove," says Warden, who worked on the Heirens case with NAU's Schehr.

Warden, who was one of the driving forces behind former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's moratorium on executions in that state, works with 35 other university-based innocence projects, which handle some 2,500 inquires a year. Throughout the country, there have been at least 117 exonerations from death row. In order to be considered for the project, a person must have been convicted, be incarcerated and have some evidence of their innocence.

"This is where records are extremely important," Warden says. "The destruction of records is a grave concern."

Warden says he remembers three cases similar in age to the Heirens case, in which people were sentenced to death and later released after being proven innocent: Michael Evans, Paul Terri and Maurice Carter. The cases of Evans and Terri were 27 years old; Carter's case was 28 years old. Had these men been from Arizona, with their records destroyed according to the schedule for documents relating to homicide, all three would likely have been executed or still behind bars.

The Heirens case may be a lost cause, but Schehr and his colleagues are looking into the Don Bolles murder case. Bolles, a Phoenix reporter, was killed by a mysterious car bomb in 1976.

"When you're looking for factual innocence, evidence preservation and retention is essential," says Schehr, who has other worries: "Is it possible that certain evidence is being preserved and other evidence destroyed in order to frame issues in a certain way?"

Innocence projects around the country are putting forward policy issues to deal with records retention and preservation because, as Schehr puts it, "You can't review a case with no evidence."

An absence of records can also hinder prosecutions. Criminals are often caught using old records that link them to current crimes, according to Assistant Chief John Leavitt of the Tucson Police Department, who says he does not believe that criminal records should be destroyed.

Leavitt refers to serial murderers and rapists, some of whom don't start their serious crime sprees until they're in their 30s or 40s, but may have some sort of criminal history to track. Some criminals commit crimes for years, leaving a trail of clues that must be put together like a puzzle. Sometimes criminals disappear, only to return and commit more crimes. Leavitt points out that crimes are often solved by reports of suspicious behavior or circumstances from past reports or records; there may be a notation of a similar modus operandi, or a field interview that puts a suspect in the area a crime was committed.

One example that Leavitt remembers is that of serial rapist James Hegwood, who raped and robbed at least four UA-area women in the late 1980s. Leavitt believes Hegwood might not have been caught had Leavitt and others not been able to go through old traffic tickets and field interviews that police had conducted with Hegwood. Circumstances led police to believe that Hegwood lived in the area where the rapes had been committed; descriptions from old traffic tickets and field interviews matched descriptions of Hegwood with descriptions from the victims.

"This was before records were routinely destroyed," Leavitt notes. "Hegwood had no appreciable criminal history, so we needed every scrap."

In 1990, at age 35, Hegwood was sentenced to 300 years in prison.

If Leavitt tried to solve that case today, the evidence would not be there. According to the police retention schedule, traffic violations and parking violations are now scheduled to be destroyed after one year. Class 2 through 6 felonies--including rape, child molestation, burglary and assault--are to be destroyed after eight years; petty offenses after two years; and logs--including criminal history inquiries, patrol and duty logs, warrant logs and jail logs--within six months to three years (both paper and electronic copies). Documents pertaining to homicide cases, according to police and sheriff retention schedules, may be destroyed after 25 years.

Homicide Survivors Executive Director Gail Leland's 14-year-old son, Richard Leland, disappeared June 17, 1981; his body was found July 24, 1981. The murderer has never been found. Richard's case, investigated by the Pima County Sheriff's Department, is now more than 23 years old and classified a "cold case," though not a closed one. Leland worries that the destruction of records may jeopardize any chance of her son's murderer being found and arrested someday.

"What if someone comes forward with information about an individual who committed similar crimes?" she asks. "If records on those individuals have been destroyed, investigators will no longer be able to put together the puzzle or paint the picture that might find his murderer."

Audio records of court proceedings are sometimes scheduled for destruction in as little as six months--a fact that Lea Huffman of Marana learned the hard way.

Huffman has been harassed for more than four years. She's had her tires slashed, her windows broken, her home invaded. Poison has been thrown to her dogs; false reports have been made to various agencies; rocks have been thrown at Huffman and her family; phone calls have been made to her place of work, with death threats.

Huffman appealed to law enforcement for help, with no success. At one point, in 2001, she was able to get a restraining order against four people she suspected to be the perpetrators; an audio tape was made of the two-day court hearing. But the harassment continued, so she complained to law enforcement again. Huffman cited her previous court hearing in her newest complaint, but a detective disagreed with her regarding what evidence had been presented. Believing it would be easy to obtain records from the hearing, Huffman requested the audio recording--only to be told that it had been destroyed within six months of the hearing.

Huffman has all but given up hope that her case will ever be solved.

Internal Affairs complaints against a police officer are destroyed after five years. Roy Warden of Tucson (no relation to Rob Warden) made an internal affairs complaint to the Tucson Police Department about the treatment he'd received from former Officer Charles Walter. Although Walter had been with TPD for 23 years, Roy Warden was only able to obtain the complaints made against Walter since 1999--there were 13 of them--because previous records had been destroyed. Walter was later arrested and prosecuted for trying to lure a minor for sex over the Internet (while using his police computer); he has since left the department and lost his right to be a police officer. Roy Warden feels that a history of Walter's offenses within the police department might have alerted them to his proclivities.

Lynn Jung, records superintendent at the Tucson Police Department, says records destruction is the only efficient way to handle the sheer volume that TPD handles. Jung estimates that 500 records a day come to TPD, and says that the storage area the city provides--which is able to accommodate 14,668 cubic feet of records--is already full.

At TPD alone, the 58 full-time employees who handle records isn't enough. Jung points out that there are ways to retain records--a detective, for example, can request an extension--but Jung says the best way to make sure records are retained is for interested parties to request to have their records copied before they are scheduled to be destroyed.

"Once they're gone, they're gone," she says.

When asked to comment on the problems raised by destruction of records, Director of Records Management Laurie Sletten said: "Records, like people, change in their value, and an appraisal may be necessary. Technology may allow us to use records better or for different reasons. I am willing to sit down with any of these agencies to reassess if we are meeting their needs."

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly