Troubled St. Paul crime lab problems even worse than first thought, probe reveals

Crime lab
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith answers questions from the media Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 about a report that found problems with the department's crime lab work.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Two independent consultants hired to review the St. Paul Police crime lab found major errors in almost every area of the lab's work, including the fingerprint and crime scene evidence processing that has continued after the lab's drug testing was stopped in July.

The failures include sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic scientific procedures, according to reports released Thursday. Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a "technical reference" in at least one drug case.

Consultants found lab employees mistakenly classified at least one-third of all fingerprints as unidentifiable and destroyed them. Case files "were largely unintelligible," consultants found. The lab lacked any clean area designated for the review and collection of DNA evidence. The lab stored crime scene photos on a computer that anyone could access without a password. Conditions at the lab violated federal safety and health requirements.

However, consultants did not find lab employees intentionally mishandled cases or matched crime scene fingerprints to innocent people.

The city of St. Paul hired the two consulting firms in August to review the St. Paul police lab's work after lab employees testified in July that they did not follow any standard operating procedures and may have relied on contaminated equipment. The testimony threw thousands of drug convictions into question. A judge has yet to issue a ruling in the case that exposed the lab's faulty work.

Documents: Read the independent reviews of the crime lab.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said Thursday he was concerned about the consultants' findings and will be making changes to improve lab work.

The lab may eventually resume drug testing, Smith said, but he would not say when that would occur.

Texas-based Integrated Forensic Laboratories, one of the consulting firms, reviewed 100 controlled substance cases selected by the St. Paul police department in late 2012. In a report dated Jan. 31, 2013, it recommended the lab "cease operations" until police hire skilled professionals to run the lab.

"Errors were noted in the majority of case files examined," the Integrated Forensic Laboratories' report said, "ranging from minor typographical errors to misidentification of a controlled substance."

Lab employees identified controlled substances "using methods that were inadequate or blatantly wrong," according to the company's report. The review found no indication that the lab performed basic maintenance on its drug testing equipment.

The company recommended "comprehensive retesting" of St. Paul police cases by an accredited lab, but its report did not specify whether the retesting should include all evidence tested at the St. Paul lab or just more recent cases. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab has retested more than 100 recent cases and found two instances in which the St. Paul lab incorrectly identified suspected drug evidence. The lab's daily practices have not changed in more than a decade, according to testimony in July by Sgt. Shay Shackle, the crime lab's director who was later reassigned to a different police unit.

Crime lab
St. Paul Police Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen answers questions from the media Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 about a report that found problems with the department's crime lab work.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Iowa-based Schwarz Forensic Enterprises conducted a separate review of the lab's fingerprint and crime scene units from Aug. 30 to Sept. 19, 2012. The consulting firm examined 246 randomly selected fingerprint cases. It also reviewed 73 controlled substance cases selected by the police department.

More than 40 percent of the fingerprint cases involved "seriously deficient work" by lab employees, the company found. Lab employees appeared to lack even the most basic understanding of how to inspect a fingerprint. Many fingerprints were destroyed because lab employees wrongly believed they were unusable.

Consultants struggled to understand the work performed by the fingerprint unit.

"Due to the complete lack of annotation of actions taken during the original examination process, it is difficult to determine the examination processes, including what work was attempted or accomplished," Schwarz Forensic Enterprises said in its report.

The report on the lab's fingerprint testing is dated Dec. 12, 2012, but it was not released to the public until today. The lab's fingerprint unit remains open despite the findings.

Schwarz Forensic Enterprises' review of 73 drug cases selected by police found nine instances of "potential contamination" of evidence. All nine instances involved contamination from one item to another in the same criminal case. The review did not find any evidence of contamination from one case to another.

The company advised police to hire a professional who can serve as a quality manager. It recommended that the lab pursue accreditation by developing policies, procedures and practices that meet scientific standards and hire an outside agency to audit the lab after it makes changes.

It also suggested the lab develop a computerized system to track cases and a statistical reporting system to monitor trends and changes.

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

Both companies cited dozens of problems with the lab. For example:

• Some of the equipment used to test evidence for the presence of illegal drugs was "in very poor operating condition," according to a report by Integrated Forensic Enterprises. "As a result, it is possible that the Lab was unable to identify controlled substances, or even misidentified controlled substances and uncontrolled substances."

• Employees likely harmed the drug testing equipment by preparing samples that were "10,000 times too concentrated." The error can lead to "rapid contamination," according to the Integrated Forensic Laboratories report.

• The fingerprint supervisor lacked certification in fingerprint identification. Lab documents indicate the supervisor had not attended "training of any significance in the field" since 2001.

• Fingerprint and crime scene reports did not clearly identify who performed the work and who verified the results.

• In 21 of the 246 fingerprint cases examined, lab employees failed to label the fingerprint and just labeled the envelope instead. Reviewers noted that if the fingerprint card fell out of the envelope, no one would know to which case it belonged.

• One drug case file contained the results from another case.

• The drug case files "were found to be excessively complicated and difficult to review."

• The terminology used to report the results of drug tests "is not scientifically sound and does not meet scientific standards."

• The drug terminology used by the lab differs from the language used in Minnesota law. "Not mirroring the statute language could result in the wrong charges being filed," according to the report by Integrated Forensic Laboratories.

• In many drug cases, the lab recorded the weight of the drugs inaccurately. Reviewers discovered the error when they added up the net weights recorded for each piece of evidence in a drug case. They compared that number to the gross weight recorded by the lab for the entire case. The numbers in many cases did not match.

• The lab's computer system for storing digital evidence is "rudimentary and antiquated."

• Photos taken by the fingerprint and crime scene units are stored on a desktop computer with no password and no routine backups. "All the files are open for deletion, edit and movement by any user accessing the terminal," Schwarz Forensic Enterprises found.

• Most of the evidence was not sealed with "tamper-evident" tape that would indicate whether it was compromised.

The St. Paul City Council released more than $1 million in extra funding to the crime lab last week.

Chief Smith said the police did not provide copies of the reports to the city council prior to the meeting in which the council released the money.

The police were still reviewing the reports last week and did not have them ready for public viewing until now, said St. Paul Police spokesman Howie Padilla.

The police department plans to use the extra funding released by the city council for equipment, building improvements, training, consultants and salaries. Police will also pay for two employees at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab to test drug evidence on behalf of police.

The renovated lab will cost $1.5 million a year to run. The lab's previous annual budget was about $800,000.

MPR News will continue to update this story throughout the day.

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