Court records: Dakota County prosecutor knew of St. Paul crime lab problems

James Backstrom
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom addresses a news conference in this file photo from Oct. 11, 2005, in Hastings, Minn.
Jim Mone/Associated Press

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said Wednesday that he did not learn of the serious allegations against the St. Paul Police Department crime lab until last week, but court documents show that at least one Dakota County prosecutor knew about problems at the lab for almost four months.

According to court records, Assistant Dakota County Attorney Vance Grannis III met with a crime lab employee and two public defenders at the St. Paul Police Department on March 30, 2012 to discuss how the lab conducts its drug testing. Grannis took notes at the meeting. The public defenders requested those notes and filed the five-page document with Dakota County District Court last week.

At the March meeting, Grannis wrote, lab analyst Kari McDermott told the attorneys that the lab does not regularly check its drug testing equipment to make sure it is working, does not keep a record of whether testing materials have expired, and does not consider what the margin of error might be when weighing drugs.

Other lab employees later confirmed those allegations during testimony in Dakota County District Court this week. St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith announced Wednesday that he is temporarily shutting down the crime lab's drug testing in response to the allegations.

An assistant for Backstrom did not return a request for comment placed Thursday morning. Grannis declined to comment on the meeting or whether he informed Backstrom of it.

During an interview with MPR News Wednesday evening, Backstrom said he did not learn of the allegations until defense attorneys filed an affidavit and exhibits last week.

"That's the first inkling that we had that there was a significant concern," Backstrom said.

The notes from Grannis include several allegations that were later confirmed during testimony by three other crime lab employees this week in Dakota County District Court.

They include, referring to crime lab analyst Kari McDermott:

"Kari is not sure where the threshold is for the machine working correctly."

"Kari does not believe that they have a lab code of conduct."

"No record is kept of whether the solvent is expired or not."

At some point in the March meeting, defense attorneys Lauri Traub and Christine Funk asked McDermott for copies of the studies the lab conducted to ensure its equipment is accurate.

Grannis wrote, "Kari will get them if they exist. Kari has never seen any validation studies. This horrifies her."

The meeting marked the first time any defense attorneys had requested information about how the lab conducts its drug testing, according to testimony from lab employees this week.

McDermott, the lab employee who attended the meeting, seemed puzzled by the lack of scrutiny, according to Grannis' notes.

"Kari does not understand why defense attorneys have not attacked like this before," he wrote.

The St. Paul Police Department crime lab provided drug testing for Washington, Dakota, and Ramsey Counties. Law enforcement officials in those counties are now sending evidence to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's lab for drug testing instead.

Prosecutors in Washington, Dakota, and Ramsey counties said they are examining how the allegations against the crime lab may impact pending drug cases and previous convictions. The crime lab processed hundreds of cases for the counties each year, prosecutors said.