More criticism of St. Paul's crime lab in second day of drug case

Public defender Christine Funk
Public defender Christine Funk, seen here in a file photo, 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

The St. Paul Police Department's crime lab came under harsh scrutiny by defense attorneys in the second day of a Dakota County hearing that could affect thousands of drug cases.

A senior lab analyst for the St. Paul crime lab acknowledged that test results in the case of 29-year-old Matthew Jensen might be inaccurate.

The analyst, Jennifer Jannetto, also said the testing equipment may have been contaminated in an unknown number of drug cases. The St. Paul crime lab processes up to 50 cases per day for Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties.

Jannetto was asked to review the lab's work in Jensen's case. Jensen, of Rochester, was charged in July 2009 with fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance. Defense attorneys have asked a Dakota County Court judge to block the evidence from entering the courtroom on the grounds that it is not scientifically reliable.

In court on Tuesday, Jannetto admitted that some of the testing in Jensen's case may have been contaminated based on the lab's records of maintenance performed on the equipment used to detect illegal drugs.

A July 27, 2010 entry in one maintenance log notes that part of the drug-testing machine is "partially plugged with white stuff." A December 9, 2010 entry notes that "white crystals" were found in parts of the equipment.

Jannetto said the lab did not test either substance to determine what it was. She said it's possible the substances were illegal drugs and could have contaminated other cases.

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.

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.

Public defender Christine Funk, during questioning of Jannetto on Tuesday, said, "You were trained at the St. Paul crime lab that, because you are not accredited, there are certain things you don't have to keep track of?"

"Correct," Jannetto replied.

Jannetto said the crime lab does not document several key aspects of its drug testing procedures and has not written a manual that it uses in all cases.

The hearing continues this week. Additional hearings are scheduled for August and early September. Prosecutors declined to comment on the case.