The case of a man convicted of burglary based largely on forensic blood evidence destroyed by Superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters went before New York state’s highest court on Thursday.
Peter Austin was convicted in 2013 of two break-ins in the Bronx after his DNA was linked to blood found at the crime scene. Prosecutors were able to introduce the findings from their DNA analysis of the blood, even though the physical blood evidence was contaminated when the police warehouse flooded in 2012.
Austin, who was sentenced to 7-14 years in prison, argues that jurors should have been told they could discount the DNA analysis because the physical evidence was destroyed.
The New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from Austin’s attorney and the Bronx prosecutors on Thursday. A decision in the case is expected later this fall.
Judges can instruct a jury to discount evidence when it was lost or destroyed intentionally or through negligence, but lower courts have ruled that no such jury instruction was needed in Austin’s case. They ruled that the evidence was not destroyed on purpose and that authorities could not be faulted for a natural disaster. They also noted that the blood samples themselves may have been of limited value to Austin, who had not asked to conduct an independent review of the evidence.
“The evidence was destroyed or rendered inaccessible as the result of a meteorological event beyond human control,” the Appellate Division wrote in its 3-1 ruling.