Prosecutors, public defenders react to St. Paul crime lab report

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

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are reviewing reports about the troubled St. Paul police crime lab to identify any problems with past convictions.

Reports by two independent consultants hired by the city found errors in almost every area of the lab's work. Police released the reports yesterday.

Consultants found problems almost everywhere they looked. They found the St. Paul lab relied on dirty, poorly maintained equipment to test evidence for the presence of illegal drugs. They also found it stored crime scene photos on a computer that anyone in the lab could access without a password. Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a reference in one drug case. However, consultants did not find any direct evidence of wrongful convictions.

The reports provide an honest assessment, said St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith.

"I appreciate what the consultants wrote. Was some of it painful? Yes," Smith said. "But I think that we will have a very good product that all our citizens and all our partners will be proud of when all of the nuts and bolts are finally put into place."

• Documents: Independent review of St. Paul crime lab

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Smith suspended drug testing in July after lab employees testified they did not follow basic scientific procedures. The lab provided drug testing for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties.

"I'm not saying there weren't problems. There were, and I'm not going to even try to defend that because it's indefensible... But what do we do going back?"

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput stressed that just because the lab's practices were faulty does not mean its results were wrong.

"I'm not saying there weren't problems," he said. "There were, and I'm not going to even try to defend that because it's indefensible. But what do we do going back?"

Orput said he is open to discussing whether past convictions should be reviewed, but he said there are some practical concerns. Lab reports might be the only information available in many cases. Drug evidence is usually destroyed after a person is convicted, he said.

FOCUS SHIFTS TO FINGERPRINT TESTING

For months, critics of the St. Paul crime lab focused on problems in the drug testing unit. But the newly released reports raise serious concerns about how the lab handled fingerprints.

Consultants found lab employees had trouble identifying fingerprints that were anything less than pristine. Consultants found the lab mistakenly classified at least one-third of fingerprint cases reviewed as unidentifiable.

Chief Smith emphasized that consultants did not find any wrongful convictions in the fingerprint unit.

"We didn't identify any wrong people but we did miss people that we could've identified because we said the prints were not of value," Smith said.

But valuable evidence may have been lost because the lab had a policy of destroying any fingerprints it could not identify. The evidence not only could be used to catch criminals. It could also be used to clear people who are not guilty.

Chief state public defender John Stuart said the fingerprint issue is complicated.

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

"That's a topic that is so new that we need to keep talking about that," Stuart said. "It is disappointing to see that the lab didn't handle fingerprints and wasn't very well trained or administered for fingerprints either."

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he will carefully review the fingerprint findings.

"I know that once we have a chance to digest all of it there are going to be questions that we're going to want to have answered by the police department, as well as perhaps the consultants who did the review as it relates to everything that they went through," Choi said.

Overall, Choi said, the consultants' work met his expectations.

"The most important thing is it seems to be very detailed and thorough, and it touches on the issues that we had requested Chief Smith to undertake," he said.

Prosecutors from the three affected counties and public defenders will meet together next week to discuss how to address concerns about past convictions. A team from the state public defender's office has already identified 1,700 high priority drug convictions to review.