A Dakota County judge has ruled that evidence from the troubled St. Paul police crime lab can be reliably retested by another lab.
The ruling came in the case of Richard Ellis Hill, Jr., who was charged with selling methamphetamine to an undercover informant working for the Dakota County Drug Task Force in April 2010. Judge Jerome Abrams found Hill guilty last week of a first-degree count for his involvement in the drug sale. Abrams rejected defense arguments that the evidence could have been contaminated when it passed through the St. Paul police crime lab.
The case marks the first time a judge has ruled on the reliability of evidence stored at the St. Paul crime lab at trial since the lab suspended drug testing in July. However, the judge's finding offers no clear path forward for defense attorneys and prosecutors considering how to handle thousands of past convictions. Lawyers continue to wait for a decision in the original court challenge that exposed problems at the lab.
In both cases, defense attorneys asked a judge to rule that evidence held at the St. Paul police lab could have been contaminated and should be thrown out.
In the Hill case, analysts at the St. Paul police crime lab performed tests three years ago that identified several substances as methamphetamine. Those results were thrown into question, along with results in thousands of other cases, when lab employees testified that they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on contaminated equipment.
After the lab suspended drug testing, police sent evidence from nearly 200 cases, including the Hill case, to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for retesting. State analysts reached different conclusions in only three cases. Hill's case wasn't one of them. The St. Paul police were correct; the evidence was methamphetamine, the state lab found.
Defense attorneys continued to pursue the Hill case, arguing the evidence could not be reliably retested because it could have been contaminated while at the St. Paul police lab. That argument was rejected by Abrams, who wrote that contamination from the drug testing equipment "is extremely unlikely and did not rise to the level of reasonable doubt."
However, Abrams also criticized the work of the St. Paul police lab and cast further doubt on its findings. Without retesting, the police lab's work in the Hill case "would not be reliable," he wrote.
Hill's attorney, Lauri Traub, said the judge's criticism of the lab's work could be useful for defense attorneys seeking to overturn years of past convictions. Traub helped expose problems in the St. Paul lab last year by challenging the reliability of the lab's work in several drug cases in Dakota County.
"While we're disappointed in the ruling ... we are happy with the finding that the crime lab results are unreliable," Traub said.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said he reached the opposite conclusion about the significance of the judge's ruling. He said it shows prosecutors can rely on retesting of evidence to resolve questions about pending and past convictions.
"We're hopeful that this ruling will be consistent with future rulings to come down in connection with (the lab), both here in Dakota County and elsewhere," Backstrom said.
The question of what to do about thousands of past convictions remains unanswered. The judge's ruling only applies to the Hill case. Each case could be treated differently, defense attorneys and prosecutors said.
While lawyers continue to wait for a ruling in the case that exposed problems at the lab, public defenders and prosecutors are working on two separate reviews of past convictions.
The state public defender's office has launched a review of more than 10,000 convictions in the past decade.
In Ramsey and Dakota counties, prosecutors are reviewing all drug convictions by a jury or judge in the past two years. Backstrom has previously estimated that less than 50 cases will meet that criteria.