Court focuses on contamination at St. Paul crime lab

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

Dakota County prosecutors persuaded a judge to narrow the inquiry into problems at the St. Paul Police Department crime lab at a contentious hearing Wednesday.

Further testimony about the test results at the St. Paul lab is no longer relevant, Dakota County District Court Judge Kathryn Messerich said, because prosecutors have agreed to discard the lab's results and instead rely on retesting by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The ongoing hearing will now focus on whether the evidence stored at the lab could have been contaminated before it was sent to the BCA for retesting. If the evidence was first contaminated at the St. Paul lab, any retesting would also be contaminated and could be thrown out of court.

"In fairness, it seems to me the case has changed," Messerich said.

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Yesterday's hearing took place a month after the St. Paul Police Department crime lab shut down drug testing. The closure was prompted by the testimony of employees in July who said the lab does not follow any written procedures and may have relied on contaminated equipment when it tests evidence for the presence of illegal drugs. The lab performed thousands of drug tests for Dakota, Washington and Ramsey Counties and the Minnesota State Patrol. The problems at the lab have thrown those cases into question.

The case now involves seven defendants charged with drug possession. Two public defenders are asking Judge Messerich to rule on whether the results of retesting performed at the BCA are reliable enough to be admitted into court in those seven cases.

The six-hour hearing Wednesday was heated at times, and Judge Messerich asked both sides to "stop bickering."

Forensic Laboratory Advisory Board meeting
Christine Funk, foreground, a public defense attorney, in a July 2012 file photo.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Public defender Christine Funk accused the police department and the Dakota County Attorney's Office of deliberately withholding evidence and ordering crime lab employees not to talk to the defense.

"I've got a police department that is trying to do a cover-up," Funk said.


The court spent several hours on procedural questions, including what kind of testimony would be allowed. Many of the details of each individual defendant's case remain unclear.

In the afternoon, St. Paul crime lab analyst Roberta DeCrans testified about the lab's procedures and about drug testing in one of the seven cases. She acknowledged the lab has no procedures that she is aware of to minimize the risk of contamination or to report contamination when it occurs.

Attorneys on both sides asked DeCrans about the security of the lab. People need a key card and a combination to get into the lab, DeCrans said. However, she said the lab workers have access to all testing areas, regardless of whether they are assigned to the drug testing unit or the fingerprint analysis unit.

Defense attorneys questioned DeCrans about her testing in one of the seven cases. DeCrans said she noticed "interference" in the test results and ran two solvents through the machine to pinpoint the problem. The machine produces graphs that show peaks in certain chemicals. Both of the solvent tests showed unusual peaks. DeCrans said she assumed the peaks were evidence of hydrocarbons from the testing materials, which, she said, would not affect the final test result.

She said she did not document the unusual finding and did not recall whether she informed anyone else in the lab.

"I can't specifically state what I did or didn't do on that date because it's over a year ago," she said.

"Did you stop testing in the lab that day until the contamination was pinpointed and eliminated?" defense attorney Lauri Traub asked.

"I can't say specifically," DeCrans said.

DeCrans also testified about how the lab stores its evidence. She said that when she receives evidence from police officers, she does not examine the packaging closely right away to make sure the seal is intact. Instead, she just looks for major problems.

If a package is "leaking stuff everywhere," or if the evidence "is falling all over the place," she would not accept it, she said.

DeCrans said she puts each package in a bin with other packages to be tested. When she takes the package out of the bin to test it, she makes sure the seal is intact, she said.


The hearing did not answer the question of why prosecutors did not move more quickly to stop using the St. Paul lab. Both sides presented different stories of who knew about the problems - and when. Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz said his office did not realize the severity of the problems until a few days before the July hearings. He said crime lab employees assured him in April that if the lab had any problems, they were not severe enough to affect the reliability of the drug test results.

Prokopowicz said his office now knows that the lab's method to test for drugs "is not generally accepted in the scientific community."

Funk, the public defender, sharply challenged Prokopowicz's statement that his office was not aware of the severity of the problems at the lab until recently.

She read from notes taken by Dakota County prosecutor Vance Grannis at a March 30 meeting with crime lab employees and public defenders. The notes includes, "No margin of error is taken into account when weighing the drugs" and "No record is kept of whether the solvent is expired or not."

Grannis, who sat next to Prokopowicz in court, did not object.

Funk noted that the information was alarming enough that Dakota County prosecutors, the Dakota County Drug Task Force, and crime lab employees held a meeting to discuss it.

Funk pointed to a series of documents filed by the defense in May and June that described all of the key problems that would later surface during testimony in July. She noted that prosecutors received a written response to questions from the defense in June from Sgt. Shay Shackle, who at the time was the crime lab director.

Defense attorneys had asked Shackle if the lab had a quality management system. Shackle wrote that he did not understand what a quality management system is and did not think the lab has one. Shackle's responses also indicated the lab has no formalized policy to prevent contamination, no formal maintenance schedule, and no formal policy to make sure evidence is secure. Shackle was later reassigned to another department.

"So when the Dakota County Attorney's office said they had no idea what was going on, I am perplexed by that," Funk said.


The case has attracted the attention of attorneys around the state because it offers a rare opportunity to witness a complicated challenge to the reliability of evidence. Defense attorneys rarely challenge the evidence in a drug possession case, and the level of questioning in this case is unprecedented in Minnesota, legal experts said. About a dozen attorneys attended Wednesday's hearing. Many took notes.

The defendants appeared to take a different view. Some had left drug treatment for the day to attend the hearing, and none of them wanted to be there. They all asked the judge to waive their appearance. One man asked to be excused even though he was already in jail and had been brought to court by law enforcement officials.

At one point in the hearing, public defender Brenda Lightbody, who was watching the proceedings from the back of the room, leaned over to a defendant with a faded tattoo of Minnesota on her arm. "I know this must seem really boring," Lightbody said. "But is really important. This has been in all the papers."

They were witnessing history in the making, she added. The woman nodded politely and then asked to leave a short while later.

The hearing continues Friday, and additional dates are set for September. DeCrans and other crime lab employees and police administrators are expected to testify Friday. A ruling in the case is not expected for several months.