Defense attorney: St. Paul police crime lab should review all drug cases

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

Defense attorney Christine Funk, one of the attorneys challenging the St. Paul Police Department crime lab's drug testing procedures, said Wednesday that the lab should review all of its drug cases.

"I think a systematic review of all of the drug cases that have come out of the St. Paul crime lab might be something that would be beneficial to consider," said Funk, a trial team attorney with the Office of the Public Defender.

Funk made the remarks after the third day of testimony at a Dakota County District Court hearing to decide whether to allow drug testing by the crime lab to be admitted as evidence in a drug possession case.

Defense attorneys for Matthew Jensen, 29, of Rochester, who was charged with fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance in July 2009, have asked a Dakota County District Court judge to throw out the drug evidence because they say the lab's results are not reliable.

The testimony concluded Wednesday morning. Additional hearing dates are scheduled for late August and September.

The judge's decision could affect the evidence used in thousands of drug convictions. The St. Paul crime lab processes up to 50 cases per day for Dakota, Washington, and Ramsey Counties. The problems at the lab date back years. Shackle, who was promoted to crime lab director in 2001, said he does not recall the lab ever having written procedures for drug testing.

The criticism of the St. Paul police crime lab procedures follows two other recent cases that scrutinized science being used in court. In one, 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 another, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a mother for the murder of her newborn daughter after finding a county attorney had tried to prevent dissenting medical examiners from reviewing the case.

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In court on Tuesday, Sgt. Shay Shackle, the head of the St. Paul Police Department crime lab, acknowledged that the lab does not follow any written procedures when testing evidence for illegal drugs and does not require lab analysts to attend trainings on how to conduct drug testing.

Some of the most scathing testimony this week came from prominent forensic expert Jay Siegel, who helped write a critical National Academy of Sciences report in 2009 on problems with forensic science practices across the country. Siegel said he was appalled to learn that the St. Paul crime lab does not test its employees to make sure they are using the equipment properly.

"It's not normal," Siegel told the court. "It's outside the mainstream. Just about every lab I'm familiar with does proficiency testing on a regular basis."

Siegel said the lab's practices show a disregard for the basic tenets of science, which he said was particularly concerning because the lab's results are often used to convict people of crimes.

"If we're going to report (drugs) being present, we better make damn sure it's there," he said.

St. Paul Police Department spokesman Howie Padilla declined to comment on the specific allegations raised in court this week, but he said Police Chief Tom Smith is aware of the hearing and will consider making improvements to the crime lab based on the information provided in court.


St. Paul crime lab employee Jennifer Jannetto, who supervises the work of other lab analysts, was asked by defense attorneys to review the lab's testing of evidence in the Jensen case. In court Tuesday, she admitted that some of the evidence may have been contaminated and should not have been reported as illegal drugs.

Jannetto also said the testing equipment may have been contaminated in an unknown number of other drug cases, based on the lab's records of maintenance performed on the equipment.

A July 27, 2010 entry in one maintenance log notes the part of the machine is "partially plugged with white stuff." A Dec. 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 that the substances were illegal drugs and could have contaminated an unknown number of other drug cases.

Shackle, the crime lab director, said the lab began drafting a written set of standard operating procedures several years ago and has not yet completed that process.

When questioned by assistant Dakota County public defender Lauri Traub as to how the public can trust the crime lab if it does not write down the tests it performs, does not provide basic training, and does not have any procedures written down for how to address contaminated evidence, Shackle said, "I still feel our employees are unbiased."

"And that's based on a feeling?" Traub said.

"That's been my experience," Shackle replied.

Shackle said he "would assume" the equipment is checked by maintenance workers to ensure no substances are stuck in the equipment.

"You would assume?" Traub said.

"Correct," Shackle replied.

"Have you ever checked on that?" Traub asked.

"No," Shackle said.

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

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

"Correct," Jannetto replied.

Defense attorneys expect the judge will issue a ruling in the fall.