Evidence collected from various crime scenes is kept under close watch in a locker in the Greene County Sheriff's Office. But it turns out, things haven't been so secure.
James M. Shifflett, a former reserve deputy, plead guilty to embezzlement charges Tuesday in Greene County Circuit Court. Shifflett admitted to stealing $19,095 from an evidence locker between April of 2008 and December of 2011.
"It leaves a black eye, but as long as people know it was under the previous administration, and everything done in the office now is transparent and legal," said Greene County Sheriff Steve Smith.
But legal experts say Shifflett's guilty plea could result in many more not guilty verdicts in Greene County.
"Defense lawyers can exploit the officer's lack of credibility and perhaps cast doubt on the integrity of evidence and persuade jurors to disbelieve the evidence is what the Commonwealth says it is," said Scott Goodman, a legal expert and defense attorney in Charlottesville.
Defense attorneys for Taybronne White, the man charged with capital murder in a 2011 triple homicide, have already used Shifflett's embezzlement case to postpone their own. In a hearing earlier this month, lawyers argued some of the money stolen by Shifflett was part of White's case.
"This casts doubt on any case where Shifflett may have been involved in collecting the evidence or preserving the evidence in the evidence room," said Goodman.
Virginia State Police began investigating earlier this year, after $1,600 in drug money from two separate cases went missing. Shifflett was one of two people with access to the evidence room under previous sheriff Scott Haas.
Court documents show Shifflett confessed to investigators, although he said he did not know how much or how long he had been stealing.
Shifflett left the courthouse through a backdoor following his hearing. Defense attorney Charles Bowman spoke on his client's behalf, saying "He is obviously very remorseful about what happened and that's reflected by the fact that he plead today."
Sheriff Smith acknowledged other criminal cases may be in jeopardy because of Shifflett's guilty plea, but said he was glad to see justice was served.
Shifflett was released on bond and will be back in court in January for sentencing. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.