Former BCA supervisor: Poor ventilation may have contaminated St. Paul lab

A former supervisor at the state crime lab testifying for the defense alleged in court Friday that the St. Paul Police Department crime lab's equipment is not properly ventilated and may have been spewing illegal drugs and chemical solvents into the air inside the crime lab.

Glenn Hardin, who worked at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension state crime lab from 1989 until 2008, said lack of ventilation and other sloppy practices could have caused contamination in the St. Paul lab's results.

St. Paul police declined to comment on allegations about the lab's ventilation system.

Problems at the lab became public when defense attorneys challenged the reliability of the lab's drug testing in several cases in Dakota County. The crime lab shut down its drug chemistry unit in July after lab employees acknowledged they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on contaminated equipment.

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The St. Paul crime lab tested evidence for Washington, Ramsey, and Dakota counties and the Minnesota State Patrol. The closure threw thousands of drug cases into question.

According to testimony from lab employees, the lab had two gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy machines that they used to test suspected drugs. Typically, these machines are directly ventilated, but Hardin noted that the only fume hoods that he was aware of, and the only one that St. Paul crime lab workers have testified about during the hearings, is located in another room.

Hardin said the result may have been that illegal drugs and chemical solvents have been spewing into the air inside the crime lab and may have caused contamination.

Hardin also noted that lab employees had previously testified that they were not aware of anyone ever performing any tests on lab surfaces or other areas in the lab to determine if the lab was contaminated with illegal drugs or chemical solvents.

"If you don't check the surfaces in the facility for the presence of drugs, how do you know [if the surfaces are contaminated]," Hardin said.

In testimony on Thursday, St. Paul police and lab workers said they did not know who was responsible for making sure the lab was properly ventilated and could not recall a time when the GC-MS testing machines were inspected to ensure that they were working properly.

Hardin also raised concerns about more routine ways that the lab evidence may have been contaminated. For example, he noted that one lab employee testified Thursday that she does not always change her gloves after every test and that she occasionally reuses equipment that is supposed to be disposed after one use.

"It is all suspect and unreliable and untrustworthy," Hardin said of the lab's work.

Dakota County Prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz responded to Friday's testimony with a forceful and vigorous cross examination of Hardin.

Prokopowicz argued that it's not enough to say the lab is performing bad science or even that the lab's ventilation system might be causing drugs to spew out into the air. Rather, he said, the defense needs to show how the lab's processes cause specific evidence to be contaminated with specific drugs.

Drug testing was shut down at the St. Paul lab in July, but all other testing continues, including fingerprint processing and analysis, and crime scene processing. Although the Dakota County hearing is meant to address a narrow question about a handful of drug cases, the allegations raised by Hardin could affect other testing in the St. Paul Police Department crime lab.

The hearing will continue in late October. The judge's decision is not expected for several months.