St. Paul police chief vows changes at crime lab; convictions at risk

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith addresses the media during a press conference Thursday, July 19, 2012 regarding problems with the department's crime lab.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith vowed to make changes at his department's troubled crime lab Thursday, after lab employees testified in court that the lab has no standard procedures for how to test evidence for the presence of illegal drugs.

The disclosure could affect thousands of narcotics cases from Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties, and there are still questions about what happened and why the lab's procedures were not reviewed sooner.

"The main issues that have arisen, I've been made aware of in the last week," Smith said Thursday, when asked why it was that he hadn't answered some key questions, including if anyone was going to be fired at the crime lab, or who knew about the problems there, and when.

Smith said he reviewed all the department's divisions when he took over as chief last year, adding that the department was drafting standard operating procedures for the lab when the employees testified. Smith said he has also appointed a new head of the crime lab. The former head, Sgt. Shay Shackle, will continue working in the lab, according to St. Paul Police Department spokesman Howie Padilla. Shackle testified in court earlier this week that the lab had been working on developing standard operating procedures for years and he did not know when the process would be complete.

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Smith also suspended narcotics work at the lab and said the department would pay for independent testing of evidence in the case at the center of the allegations.

Police spokesman Howie Padilla said the department will have more answers soon.

"Exactly who knew what -- that's a fair question and in the coming days, as part of this review, I have no doubts that'll come out," Padilla said. "Somewhere along the line somebody should've said something to someone."

Padilla said he does not know whether police officials met to discuss problems at the crime lab. "Obviously I can't answer that question, because I wasn't in those meetings that either did or did not take place," he said.

Court records show meetings did take place. Assistant Police Chief Kathy Wuorinen talked with crime lab staff in April about possible problems. She was later subpoenaed to testify about the crime lab. Padilla said he didn't know if the chief was notified of the subpoena.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Thursday the police department is doing the right thing by suspending drug testing. Choi said he will ask the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime lab to re-test evidence in cases that are still pending. But that may not be possible in some cases. Lab workers testified in court this week that they would sometimes use all of the suspected drug evidence in the testing process, leaving none left over for re-testing by other crime labs or defense experts.

Choi said that if there are cases in which the evidence cannot be retested, he will consider dismissing the charges.

Thousands of cases have already been prosecuted using evidence from the lab. Choi said he plans to meet with Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and Washington County attorney Pete Orput in the next few weeks to decide how to deal with those cases. He didn't rule out opening up every case that has gone through the St. Paul crime lab.

Attorneys with the Innocence Project of Minnesota, the nonprofit group that represents people it believes were wrongfully convicted, are reviewing their files to look for any cases involving evidence from the crime lab, said director Julie Jonas.

Jonas said there could be hundreds of wrongful convictions based on the crime lab's work, partly because many people plead guilty in exchange for lesser sentences, rather than go to trial. Jonas said many defendants assume they cannot challenge scientific testing from a crime lab.

She said a lawyer may tell a client, "Look, the lab says it was drugs, what do you want me to do? They're offering you a good deal, maybe just a probationary sentence or a very short jail or prison time."

"I think it's possible that someone who's innocent would plead guilty in that situation," Jonas said.

In the past, the Innocence Project has declined to represent people who wanted to appeal drug convictions, in part because the group has limited resources and wanted to focus on homicide convictions, which usually have longer sentences. Jonas said the group does not have the resources to review all of the cases from the St. Paul crime lab and is still evaluating how to intervene.

No state or federal law requires crime labs to practice good science. Minnesota legislators tried to address that in 2006, when they set up a board to review allegations of misconduct in crime labs and issue an annual report. The board doesn't have authority to sanction labs or require labs to comply with their recommendations.

The board relies on volunteers to serve as members, has no funding, and has only investigated one case, said board chair Brian Kasbohm.

"The advisory board needs funding for investigations and funding for an executive director... in order for us to properly do our job," he said.

Kasbohm said he hopes the situation at the St Paul crime lab will help the board make its case for funding to lawmakers this session.