Preservation and integrity of exhibits

The Sun has today highlighted the loss of a number of exhibits from famous (or infamous) murder cases. These include exhibits from the murders of Sandra Rivett (Lord Lucan’s nanny), Lin and Megan Russell, and Alison Shaughnessy.

The following is the full commentary by myself, a shortened version of which appears in the article.

From the very start of police training it is drummed into all that property is something that great care needs to be taken of. Exhibits are property. Add this to their value as evidence and the importance of their preservation; retention and integrity are clearly paramount. I was a Metropolitan Police officer for over thirty years, the majority of this time involved in the investigation of major crime. Throughout this whole time the integrity of exhibits was fundamental to the investigation and any prosecution. It is a sad fact that in a minority of cases, exhibits do go missing. This can only be due to human error. In saying that, exhibits should not be misplaced and great care must always be taken of them. The police service go to great lengths to train their staff in the seizure and recording of exhibits. A clear and transparent audit trail of any movements of exhibits is crucial to this process.

Property taken into police possession must be appropriately packaged and be identifiable by having a unique identification number assigned to it. This is then recorded by the exhibits officer who has responsibility for the security and integrity of all exhibits. Each and every movement of the exhibit for whatever purpose must be recorded by the exhibits officer in order that at all times they are aware of the location of that exhibit. Each time an exhibit is removed, the date, time and reason for the removal is recorded along with the details and signature of the person removing. This enables exhibits to be tracked at all times and their whereabouts known. If items are removed for forensic examination they will be correspondingly recorded and signed for at the laboratory or other place of examination. It is imperative that this process is adopted for each and every movement of all exhibits.

I clearly recall one incident where an exhibits officer made me sign for an exhibit even though I only wished to briefly view it and not remove it. At the time I felt he was being pedantic and felt this unnecessary. I was wrong and he was right. Such procedure is fundamental to the reliability of the system.

As a result, the location of each exhibit should be able to be known at any time. There is therefore no excuse for an exhibit to be lost as its last movement and current location should always be known. Clearly some officers are more conscientious than others and it is possible that during busy times an exhibit may be removed without being signed for. This however should never happen and it is my belief that such occasions will be very rare, if at all.

However, should an exhibit be misplaced, a thorough examination must be conducted to establish its whereabouts and if this cannot be ascertained, the details of such investigation should be recorded and the senior officer with responsibility for the enquiry must be informed. This clearly has potentially serious consequences on any investigation and subsequent prosecution.

The above clearly relates to exhibits taken into the possession of police involved in the investigation of crime. However, the preservation and integrity of exhibits is equally important in civil cases and every care must be taken to preserve such integrity to prevent any later allegations of impropriety. This relates to all exhibits whether they be documents, computers, or anything else that may be used in any proceedings.

At BGP we have substantial experience in the seizure, preservation, handling and security of exhibits. If you have any concerns about the evidential integrity of any exhibits, or require training or guidance on this subject, please contact myself or any of the team at BGP.