Dakota County prosecutor seeks to block today's crime lab inquiry

St. Paul Police Department
The St. Paul crime lab is housed at the St. Paul Police Department in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, July 25, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A Dakota County prosecutor has asked a judge to block testimony Wednesday about alleged problems at the troubled St. Paul Police Department crime lab.

The request comes as public defenders representing Matthew Jensen, a man charged with fifth-degree drug possession, prepare to question top police officials and crime lab employees about the lab's operations. The testimony is part of an ongoing hearing into whether the crime lab's work is reliable enough to be allowed into court. The crime lab shut down drug testing in July after three days of testimony from lab employees in which they acknowledged the lab does not document key aspects of its testing and may have relied on contaminated equipment.

However, Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz, in a letter to Judge Kathryn Messerich on Tuesday, questioned whether more testimony is needed about the lab. The evidence in the Jensen case has been retested by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, he noted, which unlike the St. Paul police lab, is accredited. The BCA testing also found the evidence was heroin.

That makes the central question of this hearing --whether the St. Paul crime lab's work is reliable and can be admitted into court--irrelevant at this point, Prokopowicz argued.

Any additional testimony, he wrote, is "nothing more than a 'fishing expedition' with the potential for voluminous irrelevant information to be presented that has no bearing on the issues related to tampering of contamination of evidence in this case."

Prokopowicz noted he is not saying defense attorneys cannot challenge other issues, like whether the evidence may have been contaminated before it was sent to the BCA for retesting, but he said that testimony should be reserved for trial.

Defense attorney Lauri Traub has argued the testimony should continue. In a letter to Judge Messerich on Aug. 16, Traub said she is not finished questioning crime lab employees about possible contamination at the lab. She also expressed concern about whether the lab stored evidence in a secure area.

Traub noted that crime lab employee Jamie Sipes, in a June report, indicated some evidence was stored in a hallway. Traub wrote it appears "that the general security of evidence in that lab is highly suspect and relevant for our hearing."

The Jensen case has already thrown hundreds of other drug cases into question. The St. Paul lab performed drug testing for Ramsey, Washington, and Dakota Counties and the State Patrol.

In the weeks since the lab stopped drug testing, prosecutors have offered more generous plea agreements to some defendants charged with drug offenses and have sent some evidence to the BCA lab for retesting.

So far, the BCA has retested evidence in at least 9 cases, according to Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. In each case, he noted, the BCA has confirmed the original results of the St. Paul Police Department crime lab.

"In other words, we do not currently have any evidence of widespread misidentification of controlled substances by the St. Paul Crime Lab," Backstrom wrote in an email Tuesday to MPR News.

Crime labs in Minnesota are not required to follow any specific procedures and are not required to be accredited. There is no routine oversight of non-accredited crime labs, including the St. Paul lab. A state board established by the state Legislature in 2006 to investigate complaints about crime labs has no funding and no authority to impose sanctions or require changes.

The police department plans to review the crime lab's drug testing procedures before it resumes testing. St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith authorized an independent review of the crime lab's operations, which will be conducted by two entities, according to police spokesperson Howie Padilla. The police department will not release the names of the independent reviewers until the contracts have been finalized, Padilla said.

Smith has already appointed a new head of the crime lab. Sgt. Shay Shackle, the previous lab director, was reassigned to a different position outside the lab.

The Dakota County hearing will continue Wednesday, Friday, and into September. A ruling is not expected for several months.

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