Public defenders review 10,000 cases from St. Paul crime lab

St. Paul Police Department
The St. Paul crime lab, housed at the police department in St. Paul, Minn., in a file photo from July 25, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Public defenders have launched a huge effort to review and potentially challenge thousands of drug convictions that relied on evidence from the troubled St. Paul police crime lab.

So far, public defenders have identified around 10,000 drug cases over the past 10 years that could be challenged based on concerns about unscientific practices at the lab, said state public defender John Stuart. He said the team may go back even further.

"As far as I'm concerned, every test they ever did is suspicious and uncertain to me," Stuart said.

The effort comes six months after St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith suspended drug testing because lab employees testified that they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated by illegal drugs.

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The lab, which provided drug testing for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties, is now being reviewed by two independent consultants hired by the city. The case that exposed problems at the lab remains active.

Prosecutors have previously said that any effort to look at past convictions should proceed on a case-by-case basis. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was not available for immediate comment, and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Public defenders will begin by reviewing cases involving clients who are still in prison and clients who have no other felony convictions, Stuart said. The effort will require public defenders to locate thousands of clients, explain the problems at the lab and discuss how each client would like to proceed, he said.

Stuart acknowledged that some clients may not wish to challenge a conviction, and he said the effort will be complicated.

"If you have thousands and thousands of cases go through a police lab that isn't operating by any standards, then you create a pretty big mess," Stuart said. "We feel obligated to our clients to dig in and see if we can help some people."

The review team includes one full-time public defender and six interns, with assistance from the chief public defenders for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties, Stuart said. The effort is being funded by emergency money set aside for post-conviction cases, but the public defender's office will pursue other funding if needed, he said.