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Judge Rice denies motion to suppress DNA evidence in Chad Benfield murder trial

John Thompson • Aug 14, 2018 at 11:20 PM

ELIZABETHTON — After a four-hour hearing Tuesday afternoon, Judge Lisa Rice denied a motion to suppress or exclude DNA evidence in the first-degree murder trial of Chad Anthony Benfield, 45, who is accused of raping and badly beating 89-year-old Mary Nolen in her home around July 14, 2017.

Nolen died of her injuries in hospital on July 25, 2017.

The motion to exclude the DNA evidence was filed by defense attorney Wesley Taylor. He cited a “legally insufficient chain of custody” for the evidence, which consisted of two chains. The first chain of evidence was for a rape kit that was administered on Nolen when she was first admitted to the Johnson City Medical Center. The second chain was for fingernail clippings from Nolen that were taken days later.

The main point Taylor argued was that sexual assault nurse examiner Tessa Proffitt did not turn over the rape kit to Lt. Penny Garland of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department for an hour after the test was used on July 14.

In his argument, Taylor pointed out that Proffitt has since been fired and is under indictment by the Washington County Criminal Court on an accusation she tampered with evidence in an unrelated case.

Taylor said the chain shows that Garland did not turn over the rape kit to the sheriff’s department’s evidence custodian, Isaiah Grindstaff, until four days later.

Taylor and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Roark asked minute questions of all witnesses who were on the chain of evidence. All testified that during the gaps, the evidence was stored in secure cabinets with double locks.

Proffitt testified that only she and two other nurses had access to the secure container at the hospital. She also said that once she completed the examination, the rape kit was sealed and her signature was placed over the seal.

Garland testified that she transported the rape kit to the Carter County Sheriff’s Department late on Friday. Because Grindstaff was gone for the day, she said she placed the evidence in a secure cabinet specially made for officers to store evidence until it could be turned over to Grindstaff.

Garland said the evidence remained undisturbed in the secure cabinet until she was able to turn it over to Grindstaff on Tuesday.

A similar close questioning was done for the chain of evidence on the fingernail clippings.

Sgt. Miles Cook transported the packet containing the fingernail clippings back to Carter County, but he was not able to attend the hearing on Monday because he was on active duty in Michigan with the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He was able to testify remotely by means of computers, videocameras and the Google Hangouts communication platform.

After the detailed examination of the procedures followed in maintaining the chain of custody for the evidence, Rice denied Taylor’s motion to suppress the evidence.

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