The city of St. Paul has hired a criminalist with nearly two decades of experience to run the struggling police crime lab.
Rosanna Caswell, who began her new job as forensic lab manager last week, is responsible for improving the lab after years of shoddy science and little oversight.
"The past is the past," Caswell, 41, said in an interview Thursday. "I'm going to move forward. I wasn't here, but obviously there were deficiencies."
The St. Paul crime lab stopped drug testing in July after two public defenders challenged the lab's work in several Dakota County drug cases. Police Chief Thomas Smith also reassigned the lab's director, Sgt. Shay Shackle. In court last summer, lab employees testified that they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated by illegal drugs.
A subsequent review by two independent consultants found major errors in almost every area of the lab's work, including drug testing, fingerprint examination and crime scene evidence processing. The failures included sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic science. Some of the lab's reports were illegible. Others inaccurately recorded the weight of illegal drugs. Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a "technical reference" in at least one drug case.
Caswell said she has no plans for the lab to reopen its drug testing unit. She said the lab will resume fingerprint analysis and crime scene processing once employees are well trained and the lab has a written quality manual in place. She also wants the lab to apply for accreditation by the end of the year. Accreditation requires labs to create standard written procedures. The approval process can take years.
The downsized lab includes three police officers, two sergeants and a newly hired certified fingerprint examiner who previously worked for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. All of the employees are receiving training from Schwarz Forensic Enterprises, an Iowa-based firm hired by the city of St. Paul. The firm has also trained police officers in how to lift fingerprints from crime scenes and has assisted with several cases.
Unlike the lab's previous director, Caswell is a trained scientist and certified fingerprint examiner. She previously worked as a fingerprint examiner for Ideal Innovations, Inc., a private consulting firm in West Virginia, and as a criminalist at the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Meanwhile, the legal battle over past convictions based on evidence from the St. Paul lab continues.
The lab provided drug testing for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties. When it suspended drug testing, county attorneys asked police to send evidence to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension instead. Prosecutors dropped charges in some pending cases and offered plea agreements with little or no jail time in others. However, they declined to review past convictions in which a defendant pleaded guilty, a decision that effectively excluded almost all drug cases.
Public defenders have created a statewide team to comb through past convictions for possible appeals, but many attorneys are waiting for Judge Kathryn Messerich's ruling in the Dakota County case that exposed the lab's problems.
Messerich will decide whether evidence that passed through the St. Paul crime lab could have been contaminated in a way that would make retesting by another lab unreliable. Her ruling would only apply to the defendants in the original case, but other judges might be swayed by her conclusions.
The next hearing is scheduled for tomorrow.