Witnesses to testify drug evidence retesting cannot rectify damage by St. Paul crime lab
Witnesses will testify that drug evidence handling at the St. Paul Police Department Crime Lab was so poor that retesting cannot rectify damage done, stated public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk in an Aug. 16 summary of witness testimony expected in a Dakota County courtroom Aug. 22.
The hearing will continue three days of testimony that began last month and revealed multiple problems at the lab including lax standards, improper testing procedures, failures to maintain equipment and an under-trained workforce.
A week after that hearing, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and prosecutors in Ramsey and Washington counties began sending drug evidence first tested at the crime lab to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for retesting in an effort to continue prosecutions.
That retesting effort could be affected by next week’s testimony that will detail contamination issues at the lab, and why those issues are not alleviated by sending evidence to another lab for testing.
Slated to testify is Glen Hardin, former BCA Forensic Lab supervisor, who will testify the lab never performed validation study or testing to verify if the cleaning methods they employed were effective or ensure work surfaces were actually clean and free of drug residue before additional tests were performed.
Hardin is also to testify there is no written chain of custody to establish who possessed evidence within the crime lab as it was moved around, and if evidence was constantly transported and stored in a drug-free environment.
Traub’s summary also indicates evidence was unsecured and left in a hallway.
St. Paul police officer Jamison Sipes told Traub and Funk in an Aug. 15 meeting that, as he stated in a June 19, 2012 report, drugs evidence was left in an unsecured hallway, and once a person enters the lab, there is no other secure area except the drug vault.
A copy of the report, included with court documents, states if the lab was accredited, “Secured space would need to be identified for evidence as no evidence can be un-secured in hallways.”
Traub’s summary states Sipes said he was “concerned“ about evidence in the hallway, and that evidence is not locked or secured beyond a double-door entrance to the entire crime lab.
He added that the lab upgraded their evidence procedures to include a clipboard for workers to sign evidence in and out, according to the summary.
Hardin is also expected to testify that nobody at the lab checked to ensure drug evidence packaging was intact before it was stored in a bin with other drug evidence.
Finally, Hardin will reference documented equipment issues that may have resulted in carcinogens (methylene chloride) being expelled into the air breathed in by employees and settling on lab surfaces.
Contamination could occur on glassware, testing vials, weighing boats and evidence, once opened, states the summary.
“To be clear, Mr. Hardin is not saying that everything in the SPPDCL is contaminated,” Traub stated in the summary. “What Mr. Hardin is saying is it is simply unknown what is and what is not contaminated because of the poor record keeping and the lack of standard operating procedures in the SPPDCL.”
She stated Hardin’s position is that the lab’s techniques and methodologies are not reliable.
“A significant concern, and something that should be of concern to any competent analyst performing subsequent testing, is the fact that there are significant gaps in the chain of custody of any sample that has been handled by the SPPDCL,” Traub wrote. “No competent forensic scientist should be comfortable issuing a report on evidence where there is a significant missing period in the chain of custody, particularly when there is a possibility of sample contamination during that missing period.”
Traub’s summary also documents challenges she and Funk encountered with prosecutors and when meeting with witnesses in preparation for their testimony.
She states that at a scheduling conference with Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich, Dakota County Chief Deputy Phil Prokopowicz said he did not believe further testimony was necessary because drug testing had been moved to the BCA.
“We could not disagree more strongly,” Traub stated, because their clients have a right to a full record at this hearing, and they have not yet covered issues of contamination in the lab.
Traub states that when meeting with St. Paul police department Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen, Dakota County Attorneys Vance “Chip” Grannis III and Ann Offermann were already in the conference room with her.
Traub said she had not asked them to attend, adding, “I believe witness preparation is not something the other side should be a party to. We did not appear at their witness preparation before either portion of this hearing, and I wish they had extended to us that same courtesy.”
According to the summary, Wuorinen at first denied meeting with anyone from the Dakota County Attorney’s office regarding the crime lab, but after Traub noted her presence had been established by newspaper accounts, Wuorinen admitted she had met with them once on April 9.
Traub wrote that she refused to answer many questions, and Grannis interrupted her saying he did not think she had to answer them.
She notes that the summary does not include many witnesses they intend to call from the St. Paul police department, because many refused to meet with them without the prosecutors present or to have the questions e-mailed to them ahead of time.
“Given the interference from Mr. Grannis during my meeting with A.C. Wuorinen, and because we believed our meetings to be witness preparation not open to the other side, I clarified with each witness that witness preparation did not involve the presence of the other side, and it also involved not only asking questions but receiving answers.”
Among the St. Paul police department officials Traub cited as witnesses were Cmdr. Greg Pye, Cmdr. Colleen Luna and lab worker Kari McDermott.