Three county attorneys say they're looking to drop drug charges and "take corrective action" in light of St. Paul police crime lab's troubles.
Updated: August 1, 2012 - 9:59 PM
Three county attorneys said Wednesday they are considering dismissing drug charges against some defendants in light of the testing problems at the St. Paul police crime lab that surfaced last month.
The three -- Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput -- also announced in a statement after an hours-long meeting that charges in other cases could be reduced. About 350 to 400 cases could be affected.
Those options were outlined on the same day that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was asked to start immediately retesting drug samples in hundreds of pending drug cases handled by the lab.
"It is unfortunate that we are in the position of having to take corrective action due to the troubling issues that have come to light in the St. Paul Police Department crime lab," the statement said.
The three met to come up with a uniform response to revelations in court last month that called into question the practices and training of the employees at the St. Paul lab, which in the past decade has probably performed drug tests in 10,000 or more cases for the three jurisdictions.
Two public defenders are challenging the lab's results in eight drug cases in Dakota County District Court. Testimony by lab staff revealed a lack of oversight, training and documentation of evidence-handling and testing procedures. Basic scientific standards were not followed, defense experts testified. Testimony will resume in August and September, with a judge's decision expected later this year.
Choi said the BCA has agreed to give priority to the dozens of cases that already have trial dates.
The reduction or dismissal of charges will be done where there is not enough of a sample to retest, which might be the situation in possession cases. "That was an easy one," Choi said. "That's what justice would require. ... It's not our job to only get convictions."
The options to reduce or eliminate charges drew immediate praise from defense attorneys and public defenders.
"I think that is the right response," said Julie Jonas, the managing attorney with the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which is reviewing its own files to find cases touched by the St. Paul lab that might need to be reopened.
Jonas joined State Public Defender John Stuart on Wednesday in asking for an independent review of the lab and its practices, which might have tainted thousands of cases and hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence.
"I think there should be an independent audit," said Stuart, who has asked the chief public defenders in each of the state's 10 judicial districts to review the crime lab in their jurisdictions. "It was a surprise to learn that the majority of the crime labs in Minnesota are not accredited."
Stuart and others believe accreditation might have prevented most of the St. Paul lab's problems.
Howie Padilla, a spokesman for the St. Paul police, said the department is conducting an internal review of the lab and its practices. He said it is too early to determine whether an independent audit will be conducted.
He also said no decision has been made on whether to pursue accreditation for the lab, although Chief Thomas Smith and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman have pledged to fix the problems.
Choi said the scope of the problem will become clearer once the BCA finishes retesting the hundreds of cases. If the tests confirm the lab's findings, then the fallout could be minimal. If some samples show false positives or contamination, however, questions could be raised about the lab's overall competency. Then thousands or potentially tens of thousands of cases would need to be reviewed or reopened.
From 2007 to 2011, according to St. Paul police records, the lab handled more than 16,000 cases and processed more than 200,000 pieces of evidence.
"They had a similar situation in Houston and, six years later, they are still in court," Stuart said.
Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281
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