St. Paul crime lab director replaced

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS AND , HER Ó N M Á RQUEZ ESTRADA
  • Updated: July 19, 2012 - 11:18 PM

The troubled St. Paul police lab has already suspended testing of drug evidence, and will seek outside help to improve the lab.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said Thursday that he learned only this week of alleged poor training and improper procedures in his crime lab, even though a lab employee told a prosecutor and two defense attorneys more than three months ago that she was horrified by a lack of protocol.

Meanwhile, a Dakota County official said he was told at an April meeting that the lab was following procedure. "They assured us ... everything they're doing is contemporary with other labs and not to worry," said Chief Sheriff's Deputy Tim Leslie. "We were shocked by the revelations."

The lab worker, Kari McDermott, "does not understand why defense attorneys have not attacked like this before," Assistant Dakota County Attorney Vance Grannis wrote in notes from a March 30 interview between McDermott and defense attorneys Lauri Traub and Christine Funk.

Traub and Funk have challenged the St. Paul lab's work in eight drug cases in Dakota County District Court. In testimony this week, the lab's staff, including its longtime director Sgt. Shay Shackle, admitted numerous shortcomings that threw its science into doubt and could affect hundreds of past and pending prosecutions.

On Thursday, Smith announced that Shackle would be replaced as director by Senior Cmdr. Colleen Luna, who heads the department's Internal Affairs unit. Shackle, who has headed the lab since 2001, remains part of the lab's staff. Smith has already suspended the testing of drug evidence, and said the department will seek out a scientist and other experts to assist in improving the lab, and that the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has already agreed to help.

Pending cases will be reviewed, the chief said, including those in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties, which contracted with the St. Paul lab for testing. The department will pay for an independent lab to test samples in question in the current case, a drug possession count against Matthew D. Jensen.

In the meantime, other testing continues at the lab, including fingerprint and preliminary DNA collection.

Smith said he will "rectify" the situation and that the department looks forward to rebuttal testimony in the hearing, to resume next month. He said the crime lab does have procedures in writing but they haven't been properly approved, contrary to testimony by lab staff that there are no written protocols for testing procedures.

"I want to make sure the public knows and all our partners know that I will do everything, and I mean everything -- no stones unturned -- to make sure we get back to the exceptional standards in the crime lab that I expect and the public expects," said Smith, who became chief in 2010. He said it's too early to say if anyone will be fired.

Smith said that although he was made aware only in the past week of the main issues, the defense attorneys interviewed McDermott March 30 at police headquarters. Notes from that interview were included with the May 4 motion requesting a hearing on the scientific validity of lab findings.

According to the prosecutor's notes from the interview, McDermott told the defense attorneys that no margin of error is taken into account when weighing suspected drugs, the amount of solvent used to test them has varied, and no record is kept of whether the solvent has expired. According to the notes, she said she was unsure whether any validation studies -- a quality assurance measure -- exist. "This horrifies her," the prosecutor wrote.

Leslie said he was part of an April 9 meeting with St. Paul police officials to address concerns of the county attorney's office after the meeting with defense attorneys. He said that Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen, Senior Cmdr. Gregory Pye, Shackle and two crime lab staff members met with him and with Chief Deputy Dakota County Attorney Phil Prokopowicz and Sgt. Dan Bianconi, who heads the Dakota County Drug Task Force. "They have a great reputation, and we believed everything they said; we left and carried on with our business," said Leslie, a former St. Paul police officer. "We're clearly disappointed."

According to police spokesman Howie Padilla, Wuorinen said it was the understanding of those at the meeting that prosecutors' questions were answered and there were opportunities for follow-up. Funk and Traub subpoenaed eight department members, including Shackle and his supervisor, Pye, and Wuorinen.

In an e-mail dated April 27 to Grannis, Jennifer Janneto, a lab worker, indicated she had been "directed to forward any and all policy and procedural questions relating to members of the lab meeting with the defense, to ... Wuorinen."

The e-mail, which became part of the public record during the trial, is addressed to Wuorinen, Pye and Phil Prokopowicz, chief deputy for the Dakota County Attorney's Office. Padilla said he could not say why the chief wasn't notified of the issue earlier. "Exactly who knew what is a fair question, and I have no doubt that in the future it'll come out," he said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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