Dakota County asks judge to halt drug lab hearing
Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz has asked for an immediate end to a court hearing that has raised questions about the reliability of evidence tested in the county’s drug cases.
Referring to the process as a “fishing expedition” by public defender Lauri Traub and Christine Funk, Trial Team member of the State Public Defender’s Office, Prokopowicz told Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich the hearing is a waste of time and resources.
“To allow the pretrial evidentiary hearing to proceed in its current form is to allow defense counsel to engage in nothing more than a ‘fishing expedition’ with the potential for voluminous irrelevant information to be presented that has not bearing on the issues related to tampering or contamination of evidence in this case,” Prokopowicz wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the judge.
But testimony thus far in the hearing has proved influential, prompting numerous significant changes at the highest levels of the St. Paul crime lab and public vows from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and police chief Tom Smith that improvements and changes were coming.
At the hearing last month, St. Paul police department crime lab employees testified the lab employed under-trained workers performing improper testing methods using equipment not adequately cleaned or tested and a lack of written protocol or standards within the lab.
Since the hearing, Sgt. Shay Shackle has been replaced as head of the lab, all drug testing has ended there and Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties are retesting drug evidence at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s certified crime lab.
St. Paul police announced Monday they would hire two independent experts to review lab operations and drug evidence handling.
Evidence to be presented this this week promises to challenge the prosecution’s assertion that retesting drug evidence would resolve issues about the quality of the lab results, Traub indicated in an Aug. 16 summary filed in the court.
Traub indicated witnesses will testify that drug evidence handling at the St. Paul Police Department Crime Lab was so poor that retesting cannot rectify damage done.
According to Traub’s summary, 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.
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.”
The summary also states Glen Hardin, former BCA Forensic Lab supervisor, will testify that drug evidence was stored and transported together, without ensuring each was packaged to keep from mixing together.
Traub stated Hardin will conclude the level of contamination at the lab is not known because of its poor record keeping, and lack of standard operating procedures.
But Prokopowicz challenged that assertion in his letter.
He said there has been no evidence of actual contamination of items and substances that were submitted to the BCA for retesting.
In a footnote, he adds that the state acknowledges testimony that indicated the presence of contamination in samples subjected to gas chromatography testing performed by the crime lab.
He stated those samples and solutions were not submitted to the BCA for retesting.
Prokopowicz wrote the prosecution must prove that it is reasonably possible that tampering or contamination did not occur.
He repeatedly called for the evidence to be reviewed and presented in individual trials “where they will be fully addressed.”
Traub declined comment about the issue.
The hearing is scheduled to resume Wednesday in the Dakota County courthouse in Hastings.