As questions about the St. Paul police crime lab spread to fingerprint evidence, top defense attorneys say the lab needs to shut down entirely until it can prove that its work is reliable.
The lab already suspended drug testing in July after employees testified they did not follow any written procedures and relied on equipment that may have been clogged with cocaine. The allegations alarmed many in the criminal justice system and threw thousands of drug cases into question in Dakota, Washington, and Ramsey Counties. Police Chief Thomas Smith replaced the lab director and hired two out-of-state companies to conduct an independent review. The Dakota County hearing that exposed the problems in the lab is ongoing.
Despite the damaging allegations, most of the lab is still open. Every day, employees analyze fingerprints and process other evidence from crime scenes. Their findings are used to help convict people of a variety of crimes, including homicide, burglary and rape. That alarms defense attorneys who specialize in forensic science.
"I just can't imagine that there aren't serious, serious questions about what's going on in the other parts of the crime laboratory," said assistant state public defender Pam King. "I don't understand why they have that laboratory open at all."
FINGERPRINT WORK UNDER SCRUTINY
Defense attorneys say they will question any evidence that comes out of the lab. Already, at least one attorney is challenging the lab's fingerprint work. Back in May, two months before the drug testing problems came to light, Washington County public defender Rebecca Waxse asked a judge to decide whether the lab's fingerprint methods were reliable enough to be admitted as evidence in a burglary case.
Her written request contained an alarming accusation. "According to the St. Paul Crime Lab, they do not have standard operating procedures or formal protocols in place to govern the process of fingerprint analysis," she wrote.
Washington County Judge Gregory Galler denied the request. The case is still pending.
Waxse declined to discuss the fingerprint case in any detail or say whether she plans to file a new request based on the recent revelations about the lab's work.
"We need to do more investigation before we can make any true determinations about what we're going to do next," she said.
Video: Unanswered questions. Story continues below.
Washington County Criminal Division Chief Fred Fink, who is prosecuting the case, said he plans to investigate how the lab analyzes fingerprints. He declined to say what he will do if he uncovers any problems.
Washington County arguably has less at stake because, according to Fink, this is the only fingerprint case that was sent to the St. Paul lab. Fink said he's not even sure how it ended up there.
"That was an aberration," Fink said. "Historically, we've only sent drug cases to the St. Paul police lab. Somebody took a wrong turn."
Public defenders in other counties that rely more heavily on the St. Paul crime lab's fingerprint work said they will watch the challenge closely. They said prosecutors should be prepared for more challenges to the lab's fingerprint work.
Some public defenders said they expect the Washington County case to proceed differently than the contentious drug cases in Dakota County that first exposed problems with the lab. They note that Washington County Attorney Pete Orput immediately pulled all of his office's drug cases out of the lab when he first learned of the problems there.
In contrast, the Dakota County Attorney's Office continued to prosecute drug cases for months after prosecutor Vance Grannis attended a March 30 meeting with crime lab employees in which he learned about the problems at the lab. At the March meeting, Grannis wrote, lab analyst Kari McDermott told attorneys that the lab does not regularly check its drug testing equipment to make sure it is working, does not keep a record of whether testing materials have expired, and does not consider what the margin of error might be when weighing drugs.
Grannis has declined to say when he informed top county prosecutors of the meeting.
Despite the threat of legal challenges from public defenders, prosecutors have not asked police to send non-drug evidence to another lab, and they have not asked for the entire lab to be shut down.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who relies on the lab's work in many criminal cases, said he will wait for the results of the independent review of the lab, which will include a review of the lab's fingerprint work. The review is expected to take months to complete.
"Right now we have no reason to believe, other than the fact that there was an issue related to narcotics in the crime lab, that there are issues in the St. Paul crime lab," Choi said. "And therefore, what are we going to do? Shut down the entire criminal justice system and not move things along? No, of course not."
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
There are still many unanswered questions about the crime lab. Although lab employees made alarming statements while testifying at the Dakota County drug hearing, the police will not comment on much of what their employees said. That includes statements by police officer Jamie Sipes, a crime lab employee, who testified that the former head of the lab stored evidence in a hallway within the lab, instead of in a locked storage area.
The police have also declined to comment on allegations from defense expert Glenn Hardin, a former supervisor at the nationally accredited Bureau of Criminal Apprehension laboratory in St. Paul. Hardin testified that the lab's drug testing machines do not appear to be properly ventilated and may be spewing illegal drugs and toxic chemicals into the lab, which could contaminate other evidence. In court, lab employees testified that they do not know how the machines should be ventilated. They also said they never tested the surfaces of the lab to find out if any drug residue from the machines had contaminated the areas where they bring in suspected drugs and other evidence for testing.
Police officials won't say whether the lab has investigated those allegations to ensure that the evidence still coming into the lab is not contaminated.
"Simply because the answers haven't come out at this point doesn't mean that the answers aren't there," said St. Paul police spokesperson Howie Padilla. "So I guess that's why I'm reserving comment on that, and I'll let those answers come out in the fashion with the vehicle that they should come out, which is the [Dakota County] court proceeding."
Police Chief Thomas Smith, Assistant Police Chief Kathy Wuorinen, former lab director Shay Shackle, and current lab director Colleen Luna have declined interview requests from MPR News.
The drug cases at the center of the Dakota County proceedings are unlikely to be resolved for months. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said the next hearing, scheduled for late October, will include what he calls "significant additional evidence pertaining to the operation of the St. Paul crime lab." He declined to provide details.
PUBLIC DEFENDER: LEGAL CHALLENGES SHOW VALUE OF SKEPTICISM
Regardless of the outcome of legal challenges to the lab, by some measures, those efforts have already succeeded, said Bradford Colbert, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law and a part-time public defender.
"One of the things that we count on in Minnesota is that the system does things the right way," he said. "And from all I call tell, the St. Paul crime lab has not been doing things the right way, and that calls into question how the system of justice works, which could not be a bigger deal."
Colbert said he expects more defense attorneys will challenge forensic science as a result of the inquiry into the St. Paul crime lab. He also hopes jurors will look at forensic evidence with a more critical eye.
"Everyone needs to be better trained in science, myself included," he said. "We just can't shut our eyes when the expert comes in."