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Thursday, March 22 Local

Fatal Darien drunken driving case moves forward without evidence

A Stamford judge denied a motion to dismiss criminal charges against a Stamford woman whose vehicle struck two men on Interstate 95 in Darien in 2010, even though State Police mistakenly destroyed most of the evidence in the case.

The decision allows the case against Candace Blanks, 42, of Bedford Street, to go to trial on charges of leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence. A date for trial could be set in two weeks.

State Superior Court Judge Bruce Hudock ruled Tuesday afternoon that Blanks' attorney, Darnell Crosland, would be able to explore the full extent of the destruction of the evidence at trial and the resulting inability of his expert witnesses to examine that evidence.

Hudock said the destruction of the evidence by state police officials was unintentional and was based on the belief that the case had been resolved. During presentations in July and December, Hudock said there was no evidence that showed the destruction was malicious or intended to conceal anything known to be favorable to Blanks.

After the hearing, Crosland said he would appeal Hudock's ruling.

Crosland had requested the charges be dismissed against Blanks because he said state police "intentionally" destroyed much of the evidence in the case, including the car Blanks was driving. Crosland said evidence in the car that was sent back to Blanks' insurance company and crushed, as well as biological evidence that was incinerated, could have helped to exonerate his client.

Without being able to analyze the evidence, Crosland said it may be impossible to determine what could have been used to help prove Blanks' innocence. Manslaughter charges were never filed against Blanks because accident scene investigators could not determine with any certainty whether she hit Felipe Chagas, 19, and Lucas Silva, 21, with her black Lincoln Navigator when they were on the shoulder or just inside the roadway while helping to change a tire just before 2:26 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2010.

State Police Evidence Manager David Nichols testified in late July that he believed the case had been disposed of when he ordered biological evidence to be incinerated.

Nichols, a 24-year veteran of the state police who became an evidence manager for the department in 2009, said he sent plastic and glass, as well as blood samples taken from the scene, to be destroyed in March of 2013.

"It was an oversight by me. It was a mistake," he said. Three days after the evidence was destroyed, he realized his error when he received an emailed request from a state police detective asking that the blood samples and other biological evidence from the case be sent to the state forensic laboratory for analysis to prepare for trial.

Nine days after the accident -- about 30 months before the evidence was destroyed -- a similar request sent by another state police detective asking that the biological evidence be sent to the state forensic laboratory was never acted upon, Nichols said.

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But videotaped evidence and reports of the accident not held in the state police evidence locker still exist and are being held by other state authorities, Nichols said.

Blanks failed field sobriety tests after the accident, but she refused to take an alcohol breath test at the state police barracks in Bridgeport. She was released after posting $250,000 bond.

Silva was dragged about 170 feet down the highway and Chagas was found underneath his friend's car. Both were declared dead at the scene.

According to her arrest affidavit, troopers said Blanks appeared drunk and went through mood swings at the barracks in Bridgeport as she was being arrested. At times she laughed about her situation; other times she cried. She swayed back and forth as police took her fingerprints, then told officers she needed to speak with her dog and demanded to leave a phone message for the pet, court documents show.

In his decision Hudock said the destruction of the evidence "primarily hinders the state in establishing a causal relationship between the defendant's acts and the deaths of two individuals."

Family members of Silva and Chagas who gathered for the hearing said they were pleased with Hudock's decision. Speaking for both families, Fabiane Faria-Correa, a cousin of Silva, said, "We hope for a fair trial."

Crosland and Senior Assistant State's Attorney Steven Weiss are set to meet on April 3 and set a date for jury selection and trial.

John Nickerson|Police and court reporter