Independent audits released last week documenting widespread failings at the St. Paul police crime lab will be reviewed in the Dakota County court hearing examining the lab’s credibility.
Public defender Lauri Traub filed a motion this week to reopen the court record and submit the audits, the latest turn in the case’s unusual course. Traub and public defender Christine Funk, who has left her post, challenged the lab’s scientific credibility in four Dakota County drug cases last year. Eight days of testimony spread over four months concluded in October, with Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich taking the case under advisement in December with a decision due by the end of March.
Traub’s motion, which Messerich granted Thursday, will add another court date and delay the judge’s decision. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for May 3 to examine whether lab instruments could have contaminated evidence.
The audits showed that lab criminalists failed to follow basic scientific procedures, wrote confusing reports and that key testing instruments were in “very poor operating condition.” The instruments had dirty, expired and contaminated parts, the report said.
The city paid for the audits because of Traub and Funk’s challenge last year.
Prosecutors argued against Traub’s motion, noting that the reports establish information already presented during testimony. Messerich wrote in her order that that was not the case, and that the reports are “relevant” enough to merit review.
Both sides will have another chance to present witnesses and evidence at the May hearing.
Traub and Funk first sought to throw out police lab results in drug cases, but then prosecutors voluntarily dropped the results. Traub and Funk then asked Messerich to prohibit admission of test results from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), because the evidence was first handled at the police lab. They assert that the lab’s poor practices made contamination a risk.
Courtroom testimony led to the immediate shutdown of the lab, which is now under major renovations and staff changes thanks in part to $1 million set aside by the city.
The BCA retested 192 active cases in the three counties that relied on the police lab, Dakota, Ramsey and Washington. The BCA lab, which is accredited, found narcotics in two cases where the police lab hadn’t. In one Ramsey County case, the BCA found no narcotics where police had found methamphetamine. That case was dismissed, and 20 cases that were retested are now being challenged in Ramsey County.
The police lab is not accredited, but the city is seeking accreditation for its fingerprint and crime scene work while funding two drug testing positions at the BCA.
All three county attorneys have volunteered to review two years’ worth of jury and court drug convictions. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom has said that, despite concerns, there is no evidence of widespread misidentification of evidence.