A week after a three-alarm fire destroyed a Red Hook New York City Police Department warehouse that contained decades’ worth of evidence, the Legal Aid Society said the blaze will have “far-reaching consequences” for ongoing court cases and called for the city to conduct a thorough investigation of what was lost in the fire and contact defendants whose cases have been impacted.
“We recognize that this is an evolving situation, and we expect there will be an investigation in the coming weeks about precisely what evidence was lost and what cases the fire impacted,” wrote David Loftis, head of Legal Aid’s Post Conviction & Forensic Litigation department, in a Dec. 19 letter to Mayor Eric Adams, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, and each of the city’s five district attorneys.
When that investigation is complete, Loftis asked that the city produce a full list of evidence that was impacted by the fire, plus the names of the affected cases; to immediately share that information with the defendants whose cases may be affected and their lawyers; and to make data about the impacted cases available to the public.
Loftis also asked that the city release information on any usable biological evidence spared in the blaze.
“We were dismayed to learn of the loss of important DNA evidence in the fire that affected the NYPD evidence center in Brooklyn, and our clients deserve answers from City Hall and the relevant criminal legal system stakeholders,” Loftis said in a statement.
On Dec. 13, as the fire blazed within the warehouse, NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey said the Erie Basin warehouse contained “biological evidence” — including DNA evidence — from past crimes like shootings and burglaries. There were no rape kits stored at the facility, Maddrey said, though there were hundreds of e-bikes (which are notorious for causing damaging fires) plus other vehicles like dirt bikes and ATVs.
The department chief said last week that police would produce an itemized list of everything inside the warehouse as part of the investigation — and that the NYPD’s “property specialists” would determine what had been damaged and what could be salvaged.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was not clear how much evidence had been damaged or destroyed — noted some of the items stored in the warehouse were up to 30 years old — and former law enforcement officials and lawyers started raising the alarm on the impact the loss could have on ongoing cases. Experts noted that some — but not all – of the evidence would have been photographed and catalogued before the items were stored.
“Since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, preservation of biological evidence has proved critical in righting wrongful convictions,” Loftis said. “The recent fire in Red Hook extinguished the hope of scores of people who were eagerly awaiting DNA testing to exonerate them, and this loss of critical evidence has far-reaching consequences for New Yorkers.”
A Legal Aid representative told Brooklyn Paper the organization does not know which of their past or ongoing cases have been affected by the fire — and have not yet been contacted by any city agencies regarding the destroyed evidence.
“We need the actual evidence in order to try to extract DNA,” the representative said of the catalogued items. “Photographs will be of no help.”
The mayor’s office did not immediately return request for comment.
“The fire remains under investigation by the FDNY Fire Marshalls,” an NYPD spox said. “We will assess the damage caused by the fire. An update will be available in the future.”
Loftis further pushed for the city and the NYPD to ensure any wrongfully convicted New Yorkers whose cases were affected by the fire have a path to justice — and asked that the NYPD and prosecutors’ offices “develop and publish a plan of action … to ensure that the accused and wrongfully convicted are not punished for the loss of this evidence.”
Per state criminal justice law, the letter notes, prosecutors are required to “impose an appropriate remedy or sanction” if evidence or material relevant in court has been lost or destroyed— and Loftis asked prosecutors to proactively consider which measures to take in the wake of the fire.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy battered Red Hook and flooded the Erie Basin warehouse, which sits on a small plot of land that juts out into the Gowanus Bay, and is surrounded by water on all sides. The impact of the devastating flood quickly became evident in the city’s courts, as cops and lawyers testified that evidence had been destroyed or was simply inaccessible because of the damage from the flood.
“Moreover, we strongly request that the NYPD review and revise as necessary protocols for the storage of biological evidence in order to provide for its proper preservation in the future to prevent destruction, as well as the implementation of a robust evidence control and tracking system,” the letter concludes.
A decade after Sandy, the precariously-located warehouse was still chock-full of evidence, and lawyers — like Loftis and his colleagues at Legal Aid – worry that history is about to repeat itself. According to a New York City Fire Department representative, as of Dec. 15, a security fence was being constructed around the perimeter of the site, and a “controlled demolition will begin to better ascertain the cause of the fire.”
Gothamist reported the warehouse was outfitted with sprinklers that activated when the fire began, but were unable to tamp down on the rapidly-growing fire. On Dec. 13, FDNY Chief of Department John Hodgens said the warehouse was “not really very sturdy,” and firefighters were force to attempt to contain the blaze from outside after part of the structure collapsed.