A Dakota County District Court judge found a Minneapolis man guilty in a drug case involving evidence first handled by the troubled St. Paul police crime lab and then retested at a state lab — the first time such a case has been decided since a courtroom challenge last year sent the police lab into a tailspin.
Judge Jerome Abrams wrote in his decision that defense attorneys did not present enough evidence to show that there was a high possibility of contamination at the police lab. Defense attorneys Lisa Kloster and Lauri Traub had said that possible contamination at the police lab should negate the results of a second test conducted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).
Abrams' recent conviction of Richard Ellis Hill Jr., 43, in a bench trial mirrors many of the issues at play in a sprawling Dakota County court challenge that started last year. Traub is a key attorney in that case in which four different defendants are challenging the scientific credibility of the police lab, and seeking to throw out subsequent testing by the BCA because of possible contamination. That case led to major changes at the police lab, and is scheduled for one last hearing in early May before Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich issues her decision.
In the Hill decision, dated March 14, Abrams wrote that defense attorneys' evidence showed a "remote or unlikely possibility" of contamination at the police lab. A criminalist at the police lab followed handling procedures that were "remarkably similar" to techniques at the BCA, he wrote.
Abrams didn't completely let the police lab off the hook, noting that evidence showed "poor scientific practice" at the lab and "a complete lack of understanding of the processes and procedures" for the key instrument that tests suspected drugs.
"While the criminalists performing the analysis had basic scientific training as part of their education and in the course of their duties, their employer failed to provide appropriate standards and protocol," Abrams wrote. "Consequently, substantial doubt arises from their test results."
But that didn't mean that the police lab's procedures for handling, sampling, storing and sealing suspected drugs compromised the evidence, he added.
The police lab tested evidence in Hill's case in 2010 and then turned over untested portions of the evidence to the Dakota County Drug Task Force, which investigated the case. The Task Force then transferred that evidence to the BCA in August 2012 for retesting.
The evidence tested positive for methamphetamine, and Abrams convicted Hill of first-degree controlled substance and second-degree controlled substance.
Abram's decision cannot factor into Messerich's case, but it does indicate what may be in store for thousands of cases now being questioned. Several active drug cases are being challenged in Ramsey County District Court, and the State Public Defender's office is looking at possible post-conviction relief for about 1,700 cases that were convicted based on the police lab's results.
Testimony last year revealed that criminalists didn't follow basic scientific procedures, that key testing instruments were poorly maintained and that policies and procedures were not standardized and written.