Testimony reveals defense attorney’s barriers to witnesses

Workers told not to meet with defense unless subpoenaed

Dakota County prosecutors have met multiple times with St. Paul police department crime lab witnesses, but that same level of access has been denied the defense, according to testimony at the evidentiary hearing Sept. 6.

St. Paul crime lab criminalist Roberta DeCrans testified she originally agreed to meet with public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk, but was told by the crime lab administration — she said she could not remember who — that she could not meet them without a subpeona.

Traub said the meeting was to review some of DeCrans’ findings and reports she had made regarding tests in a criminal drug case Traub was handling and is included as part of the Frye-Mack evidentiary hearing.

Judge Kathryn Messerich is expected to rule whether evidence brought into the lab but not tested there may have been contaminated, and therefore unreliable for re-testing by another crime lab.

After lab workers’ testimony in July revealed the St. Paul crime lab’s substandard practices and under-trained workforce, St. Paul police officials shut down the drug testing portion of the lab, and replaced the then-head of the lab, Sgt. Shay Shackle.

During the hearing, Traub and Funk focused on the lab’s lack of maintenance of air vents, testing equipment and how lab samples were handled by different areas of the lab.

Throughout the proceedings, the defense team also expressed frustration that they were asking questions without having first spoken to the witnesses.

Last month, all sides met with Messerich and determined Traub and Funk would provide the court a written outline of the type of questions they would ask and the testimony they expected to be presented, Traub said.

Without cooperation from some of the drug lab workers, Funk said it was difficult to follow through with that direction.

At one point, Funk said, “I’m in a little bit of a difficult position because I’m relying on notes,” referring to notes taken by prosecutors during meetings with the witnesses that Funk and Traub had tried to meet with but encountered resistance.

Messerich said it is on the record there were “private meetings,” but that without a motion presented to the court regarding discovery, the court cannot resolve the ongoing discovery disputes between the state and defense.

She added she understood the issue may indicate bias, referring to witness testimony.

The judge repeatedly asked defense attorneys to focus on whether evidence could have been contaminated at the lab, and when media reports were referred to, Messerich said she did not want the hearing to turn into a discussion of what is being reported in the paper.

Phil Prokopowicz, Dakota County chief deputy attorney, several times objected to the defense’s continued questions referencing news accounts, and questioned the relevancy of the defense being excluded from meetings as the focus of the hearing is now on whether evidence merely at the lab and not tested there could be contaminated.

After hours of that kind of back-and-forth between the attorneys, Messerich held up a hand and said “Let’s stop the bickering.”