Judge postpones crucial decision in St. Paul crime lab case

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

A judge has granted a defense request to reopen the hearing that exposed shoddy work by the St. Paul police crime lab.

The decision by Dakota County Judge Kathryn Messerich adds yet another layer of uncertainty to the pending review of thousands of past drug convictions based on evidence tested at the St. Paul lab.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and other judges had expected a final ruling to be released within weeks and had planned to look to Messerich's ruling for guidance on how to proceed with past convictions. Now they will wait much longer.

The Dakota County case before Judge Messerich involves four defendants charged with drug possession. At issue is whether suspected drug evidence stored at the lab could have been contaminated in a way that would make retesting by another lab unreliable.

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In several days of hearings last summer, defense attorneys presented hundreds of pages of evidence and questioned witnesses about the lab's lack of basic scientific procedures. Lab employees testified they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated by illegal drugs.

Earlier this month, defense attorney Lauri Traub asked Messerich to reopen the hearing after police released reports from two independent consultants hired to review the St. Paul lab.

The consultants found lab employees used faulty drug testing methods, relied on dirty equipment and failed to accurately record the weights of suspected illegal drugs.

One of the consultants, Texas-based Integrated Forensic Laboratories, found lab employees likely harmed drug testing equipment by preparing samples that were "10,000 times too concentrated," according to a report by the consultants.

That error can lead to "rapid contamination," the report noted.

Traub, who requested the hearing be reopened to allow the reports to be admitted, said she's pleased with the judge's decision.

"I think it's a good sign for everyone that she wants to get it right and she wants to have all the information before her," Traub said.

Both sides are required to provide a list of proposed witnesses and exhibits to the court by April 19. The hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, in a statement released Friday, said he's disappointed by the delay and does not think the consultants' reports add any new information.

"We will, however, be prepared to proceed with further testimony on May 3, 2012 in connection with this litigation to show that the deficits and problems identified at the Crime Lab did not result in widespread contamination which should preclude further testing from occurring," Backstrom wrote.

The lab provided drug testing for Ramsey, Dakota and Washington Counties. St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith suspended drug testing in July after several days of hearings exposed problems at the lab.

The lab's drug testing unit remains closed. Police are now sending evidence to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab instead.