Drug convictions could be vacated in Dakota County

Multiple Dakota County drug convictions could be vacated under an agreement to retest drug evidence in hundreds of drug convictions in the past two years.

Dakota, Washington and Ramsey County Attorneys have agreed to vacate drug convictions since July 1. 2010 if drug evidence retesting determines a negative result or the drug evidence used in a conviction is unverifiable, according to a Feb. 21 joint statement of the prosecutors.

Dakota County courtroom testimony and recent independent reviews of the St. Paul Police Department Crime Lab revealed chronic and significant deficiencies in testing, procedures and training that led the Minnesota Public Defender’s Office recent request for retesting of prosecutions dating to 2001.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, Washington County Attorney Peter Orput and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi agreed to review cases to identify all drug evidence used in convictions since July 1, 2010 available for immediate retesting.

No Washington County cases will be reviewed because there were no jury or court trials occurred in that time period, according to the statement.

All samples that retest negative will result in vacated convictions.

In cases where the evidence is destroyed or unavailable, the files will be reviewed for corroborating evidence.

If there is not enough evidence to support the conviction, prosecutors will also vacate the conviction.

Prosecutors argued against reviewing cases prior to 2010, stating that Minnesota law motions to vacate a drug conviction must be made within two years.

They added that post-conviction relief would not likely be sought in most cases where the defendant pled guilty under oath.

They also noted that most drug evidence handled by the St. Paul Crime Lab and retested by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has so far upheld the prior results, and two retests confirmed the existence of a controlled substance undetected by the Crime Lab.

According to an independent reviews, problems in the lab included little to no equipment maintenance, sloppy testing procedures, no scientific standards or workforce training, poor evidence handling and no evidence storage procedures.

Those problems were recently confirmed and heightened by two independent investigations that showed evidence contamination at the lab, reports that did not accurately represent written testing results, confusing and inconsistent evidence cataloging.

“In one case, Wikipedia was used as a technical reference,” Integrated Forensic Laboratories’ report stated.

That agency also found parts of the testing instruments “very dirty,” contaminated and “degradation past acceptable standards.”

The report stated lab staff “demonstrated a lack of understanding of the basics of forensic chemistry and instrumentation.”

“The St. Paul Police Department Crime Lab did not appear to follow good laboratory practices in general,” stated a report by Schwarz Forensic Enterprises.

In the statement, Backstrom, Choi and Orput commended the St. Paul Police Department for “taking quick and decisive action to address these serious problems.”

“We know they remain committed, as we do, to ensuring these problems are corrected and will not occur again,” it stated.