Decision expected soon 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

The drug case that exposed shoddy work at the St. Paul police crime lab could be resolved within days.

At a hearing Friday, Dakota County Judge Kathryn Messerich said she will issue her order "as quickly as possible." Attorneys on both sides of the contentious case said they expect the order will be released in a few days or weeks.

Messerich will decide whether evidence stored at the St. Paul police crime lab could have been contaminated in a way that would make any retesting by another lab unreliable. Her order applies only to the three defendants in the Dakota County case, but attorneys and judges are watching it closely as they consider how to handle thousands of past convictions.

At Friday's hearing, public defender Lauri Traub urged the judge to discard the suspected drug evidence, arguing the lab was so flawed and its employees so poorly trained, that the court should not assume the lab knew how to protect evidence from contamination.

"They had about the understanding of a high school chemistry club," Traub said.

"They had about the understanding of a high school chemistry club."

Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz argued that analysts who retested evidence in the defendants' cases found no signs of contamination. He said it would be a mistake to assume all of the lab's work was flawed.

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The hearing was called so the defense could provide more evidence of possible contamination. Instead, public defenders asked the judge to consider the Texas Court of Appeals' decisions in several cases involving substances that passed through the discredited Houston police crime lab. Messerich declined to admit the cases as evidence.

"Here's the problem ..." Messerich said. "We get into this almost unending inquiry. How much is enough?"

Defense lawyers and prosecutors also discussed the results of an experiment by Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension analyst Eric Grunwald that tested whether a poorly run drug testing machine could spew controlled substances into a room. The experiment found "fragments consistent with contamination" in 12 of 40 tests, Traub said.

Traub had subpoenaed the analyst to testify but then withdrew the request, saying she did not receive enough information about the experiment.

Grunwald was not at the hearing and declined an interview request. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension does not allow scientists to talk to reporters, he said. A BCA spokesperson said she would inquire about the test but did not provide any information by late Friday.

Nearly a year has passed since public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk challenged the reliability of the St. Paul lab's drug testing in several Dakota County cases. Lab employees testified in July that they received minimal training and may have relied on equipment contaminated by illegal drugs. On the third day of testimony, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith suspended drug testing and reassigned lab director Sgt. Shay Shackle.

A subsequent review by two consultants found major errors in almost every area of the lab's work, including drug testing, fingerprint examination and crime scene evidence processing. The failures included sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic science. Some of the lab's reports were illegible. Others inaccurately recorded the weight of illegal drugs. Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a "technical reference."

The lab, which had provided drug testing for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties, sent evidence to the state crime lab for retesting last summer. That process found the St. Paul lab had misidentified evidence in at least three cases.

Prosecutors reviewed all pending cases. They dropped some charges and negotiated plea agreements with little or no jail time in others. However, they declined to review past convictions in which a defendant pleaded guilty, a decision that excluded almost all drug cases.

A team from the state public defender's office continues to review about 1,700 convictions for possible appeals. It's unclear how many of those will move forward. Some convicted drug offenders do not want to challenge their convictions. Others pleaded guilty to drug possession so that other charges would be dropped. Some are serving lengthy prison sentences for other offenses.

The St. Paul lab does not plan to resume drug testing. The lab's new manager, Rosanna Caswell, a scientist with nearly two decades of experience, said she will not reopen the fingerprint and crime scene divisions until the lab has written procedures in place and employees receive more training.

Crime lab
Rosanna Caswell, the St. Paul Police Department's new forensic lab manager, photographed during an interview Thursday, May 2, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

At the end of Friday's hearing, Judge Messerich thanked defense lawyers and prosecutors for their work on the case. "It's been a long haul," she said.