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Presumed Guilty: Where is the evidence?

As a detective for the Wichita Police Department, Kelly Otis had investigated some of the most notorious murders in the history of Kansas. He worked the case of Jonathan and Reginald Carr and the BTK serial killer.

By spring 2008, Otis had moved to the Sedgwick County District Attorney's office as an investigator. On April 23 of that year, Otis filed a court affidavit (PDF) saying no physical evidence from Ronald Rhodes' case still existed, from either the Wichita Police or the KBI.

Bedding and clothing were destroyed on Dec. 29, 1983, the affidavit said, and the fingernail scrapings from Rhodes and Burrell had been sent to the KBI crime lab. Based on that report, Sedgwick County District Eric Yost denied Rhodes' request.

Rhodes, however, kept filing court motions from prison. He wanted to know what happened to the evidence.

So did the Washburn law students, who had been looking into the case:"Why was the bedding and clothing destroyed just 2 1/2 years from a verdict? … Where are the lab reports from the KBI on the fingernail scrapings from Rhodes and the knife?"Their class ended soon afterward, and I began trying to contact Rhodes in prison, meanwhile, through an electronic mail system for inmates.

In his responses, Rhodes said he still was frustrated that he couldn't find out what happened to the evidence in his case.

The law students noted Rhodes may have been going about it all wrong, by filing repeated motions with the judge. The students figured the evidence logs and chain of custody receipts tracking the evidence might be available as public records through the Kansas Open Records Act.

Last month, I filed requests to examine evidence logs and related documents to the Wichita Police Department (PDF) and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (PDF).

Lawyers for the City of Wichita originally denied the request (PDF), because Rhodes' request of DNA testing was still pending in court. Later the same day, Judge Yost overruled Rhodes’ latest motion, officially closing the court case. Within days, I received copies of the Wichita Police evidence logs from the case.

A letter from the KBI (PDF) denied access to their records. I pressed the agency (PDF) to reconsider.

On Tuesday, Laura Graham, KBI general counsel, replied (PDF) that the KBI had two pages related to the 1981 killing of Cleother Burrell. Graham said the KBI didn't know whether or not the case was still open and "we do not believe the public interest in disclosure outweighs the potential harm."

We began looking at the stack of evidence logs from the Wichita Police.