Crime lab revelations could impact thousands of cases

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

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in Washington, Ramsey and Dakota counties are trying to figure out how to proceed after revelations last week that evidence in their narcotics cases may have been mishandled.

This much is clear: The St. Paul police crime lab has shut down its narcotics testing and thousands of drug convictions may be in question after two employees and the director of the lab testified in a Dakota County court last week that the lab had only an "informal" process for training new hires. The employees said they didn't follow a set of standard written procedures. They said they didn't document much of their work or check it for mistakes. The director of the crime lab said it's been operating the same way since at least 2001.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith ordered the shut down and an internal review to learn how far problems reached.

"We do have standard operating procedures in writing" for drug evidence testing, he said. But the written procedures "have not been finalized and signed. That we believe is why our staff answered that they did not have SOPs, or standard operating procedures."

Smith took over as chief last year, but he said he'd only known about the issues in the crime lab for a few days. He said his department will pay to re-test evidence in the Dakota County narcotics case, and he replaced the crime lab's director with the department's head of internal affairs. For now, narcotics evidence that would've been tested in the St Paul crime lab is going to a lab at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman wouldn't say whether he thought police Chief Smith should have known more about what was going on in the crime lab.

"I don't want to speak prematurely," he said. "I want to know kind of at one point what was the significance and severity level of the problem brought to the attention of the director of the crime lab, any of the superiors there, I don't want to prejudge anything on this one. The important thing is to move forward, to have clarity, and to have a lab that is beyond reproach. Along the way we'll answer questions about why this wasn't brought up earlier."

In other states where there have been problems with crime labs, many were shut down and their work went to another agency. Coleman said he may be willing to bring in an outside auditor to review the lab, as some have suggested.

"It's important to look back so we understand where we need to go forward. I think that an audit may be part of it," he said. "Right now we've heard one side of the story. We've heard the defense attorney's cross examination of the department. The prosecutor out in Dakota County will have an opportunity to finish his line of questioning and we'll see if that develops a little bit more clarity as to what was going on."

It still isn't clear what happens to pending cases that involve evidence tested in the St. Paul crime lab. Ramsey County Attorney Jon Choi says he'll ask courts for time to re-test evidence in drug cases. The Dakota County Attorney, Jim Backstrom, released a statement saying he'll do the same. Dakota county's chief Public Defender, Steve Holmgren, says no evidence tested in the St. Paul lab is reliable in any case.

Private defense attorney Joseph Tamburino, a former public defender for Anoka and Hennepin counties, says every decision will likely be made on a case by case basis. He says defense attorneys can't rely on prosecutors and judges to throw evidence out just because it came from the St Paul crime lab. Tamburino says it'll be up to the defense to make sure evidence was tested correctly.

"In the future if you have somebody who has the resources to get separate testing, to get a toxicologist, a forensic examiner to check out his own case, well, they're going to have a better situation on their hands."

Tamburino says defendants who can't afford second tests will have to ask for public funding.

"You're going to have to go to the courts for that funding, or somehow find it in the public defender's budget, which is going to be difficult," he said, adding that it will probably be another year before the local justice system figures out what to do about it.