St. Paul Police crime lab under scrutiny in drug case

Public defender Christine Funk
Public defender Christine Funk delivered a lecture on forensic science for defense attorneys at a June 8, 2012 training at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, Minn. The training was organized by the Innocence Project of Minnesota, a group that works to prevent wrongful convictions. Funk is now working with Dakota County assistant public defender Lauri Traub to challenge evidence from drug testing performed at the St. Paul Police Department crime lab.
Photo courtesy of Linnea Stephan

Attorneys representing a Rochester man charged with drug possession asked a judge Monday to throw out evidence tested by the St. Paul Police Department's crime lab, arguing the lab's results are not reliable.

Matthew Jensen, 29, was charged with fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance in July 2009 based on a positive heroin test result from the St. Paul crime lab. However, the lab employee who performed the test admitted in Dakota County District Court Monday that the process might have been contaminated, and the evidence might not have been heroin.

A senior lab employee also testified that the lab lacks written procedures for testing evidence for drugs and provides only informal training to new employees. The lab, which processes up to 50 cases per day, does not regularly review its work to check for errors, the employees said, and, like many other smaller crime labs in Minnesota, is not accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

''We're talking about a young man, and we're talking about taking away his liberty," said Jensen's attorney, Lauri Traub, an assistant public defender in Dakota County. ''We need to know that the science is good, and if it's not good, we need to know that as well.''

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The lab provides drug testing for Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties. The judge's decision could impact thousands of drug cases.

Traub said that if the judge agrees to block the crime lab evidence she will bring the same challenge in other drug cases. Already, she is advising other clients who have been charged in drug cases to wait until this hearing is concluded before deciding how to plead.

Phillip Prokopowicz, chief deputy of the Dakota County Attorney's Office, declined to discuss the case. Jensen, who faces prison time if convicted of the felony-level drug offense, attended a portion of the hearing Monday and left without commenting.

The dispute over the procedures at the St. Paul crime lab comes at a time of increased scrutiny of science in the courtroom. Last year, an Alexandria man was released from prison after a judge found Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee gave false or incorrect testimony at trial. In May, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Nicole Beecroft for the murder of her newborn daughter after finding a county attorney had tried to prevent dissenting medical examiners from reviewing the case.

Minnesota law does not require accreditation for crime labs, although evidence from these labs is playing an increasingly larger role in convicting people of drug possession, murder, and other crimes.

Traub said she hopes the Jensen case shines a light on the work of crime labs. Only three crime labs in Minnesota are accredited. They include the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension laboratories in Bemidji and St. Paul and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office Crime Laboratory.

Traub and fellow public defender Christine Funk plan to challenge the St. Paul crime lab's findings in several other drug cases in the next two months. Funk has pushed for greater scrutiny of courtroom science and recently led a workshop on the topic for defense attorneys at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

At Monday's hearing, defense attorneys and prosecutors questioned St. Paul crime lab criminalist Roberta DeCrans, who performed the tests in the Jensen case, and her colleague, criminalist Jennifer Jannetto.

Traub asked DeCrans to examine the test results for the Jensen case. She noted that some of the test results differed from standard heroin test results. During questioning, DeCrans said the unusual finding might indicate the evidence was not heroin, or that the evidence or the testing equipment was contaminated. DeCrans said she cleans the equipment after each test, but she said no one at the lab documents the cleaning.

Jannetto, the other crime lab employee, testified that the lab occasionally runs sample tests to make sure the equipment works properly. The lab tests the machines by using pure samples of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs, she said. The samples are stored in a locked vault inside the lab, but no one monitors how much of the sample has been used or how often the testing is performed, Jannetto said.

"We don't go through them very quickly," Jannetto testified. "At the end of one bottle, we would order another bottle."

Public defender Christine Funk questioned Jannetto about how the lab weighs the evidence. Jannetto said the lab calculates the weight up to four decimal points, but cuts off the last two decimal points to account for any error. The practice is not based on any scientific studies or observations, Jannetto said, and the lab's written report does not include any information about error rates.

"Do I think it's science? No." Jannetto said, when asked about the lab's reporting methods.

The hearing continues this week, with additional dates scheduled in August and September. Traub said she expects Dakota County District Court Judge Kathryn Messerich will issue a ruling in early fall.