St. Paul refocuses police crime lab

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2013 - 9:14 PM

The changes point toward more stringent standards.

The troubled St. Paul police crime lab will focus on crime scene analysis while moving its drug testing off-site to an accredited lab run by the state, City Council members said Wednesday before voting on new job classifications aimed at boosting the lab's integrity.

The plans, which are not final, were shared with council members who toured the lab earlier that day, said Council President Kathy Lantry. Lantry said the lab would seek accreditation for fingerprint analysis, a stringent process that could take about 18 months. The city would fund two people to analyze suspected drugs, but unlike previous criminalists, they would work at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension facility instead of the unaccredited crime lab at police headquarters.

"I think the idea is: Do things very well, show folks we are taking this very seriously," Lantry said. "The idea of working with the BCA makes sense to me."

The planned changes were prompted by damaging courtroom testimony last year that showed little oversight in the lab, poor documentation of the testing process and an absence of standardized policies for multiple aspects of its work.

Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk are challenging the lab's credibility in a handful of Dakota County drug cases. Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich must decide by early March if evidence first handled by the police lab was exposed to such a high risk of contamination that the same evidence tested at the BCA should be kept out of court.

The City Council voted Wednesday to approve the creation of new job descriptions that require candidates with experience in an accredited lab.

The criminalist job description does not require experience in accredited labs, and three criminalists at the heart of court testimony were laid off in November. The city rehired one as a property clerk and another as an office assistant.

The council members' tour is the first time improvement plans for the lab have been made public. The city hired two consultants to review and revamp the lab. The audits are expected to be released soon, along with details on how the department will spend $1 million set aside for improvements.

Council Members Chris Tolbert and Amy Brendmoen and city Financial Services Director Todd Hurley joined the tour. "This is something that we are all watching very closely and making sure we do right," Tolbert said.

Police spokesman Howie Padilla said he could not talk in detail about the lab's future but the department is working toward more stringent standards.

Ramsey County is also looking at funding one person at the BCA to test suburban cases, which had been handled by St. Paul police, sheriff's spokesman Randy Gustafson said.

Although Messerich's decision directly affects only four cases, its effect is far-reaching on the three counties that relied on the police lab -- Dakota, Ramsey and Washington. State Public Defender John Stuart recently asked public defender Jenny Chaplinski to review cases that may have been wrongfully convicted.

Chaplinski and six law clerks are pulling 1,700 cases from the past two years for possible post-conviction relief, which could include anything from a reduced sentence to dismissal of the conviction. "The Crime Lab Project" has identified 13,968 cases going back to 2001, the year Sgt. Shay Shackle became the crime lab director. He was replaced when testimony started.

"What if people are sitting in prison and they shouldn't be?" Chaplinski said.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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