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Amid hearing questioning results, St. Paul crime lab suspends drug testing

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • July 18, 2012 - 6:49 PM

 

The St. Paul police crime lab has suspended its drug testing in light of testimony this week exposing poor, undocumented work practices there that have called its scientific merit into question.

In a letter sent to Mayor Chris Coleman on Wednesday, police Chief Thomas Smith also said that the department will review and reorganize leadership in the lab, explore additional technical expertise and review pending narcotics cases.

The lab will continue to do preliminary testing of drugs, but will send narcotics out for further testing.

Smith’s letter provided the first peek into what’s going on behind closed doors as a messy, painful dissection plays out in public in Dakota County District Court.

Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk are challenging the St. Paul lab in eight Dakota County drug cases in a Frye-Mack hearing, which seeks to throw out evidence derived from bad science.

Lab director Sgt. Shay Shackle and criminalists Jennifer Jannetto and Roberta DeCrans testified that the lab does not have written protocols for its testing procedures, equipment maintenance or evidence handling. Shackle testified that the lab was under-performing, and Jannetto admitted that a test DeCrans conducted needed further vetting. (DeCrans’ findings resulted in drug charges against a key defendant in the Frye-Mack hearing.)

 

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Challenged to defend the scientific integrity of the St. Paul police crime laboratory he heads, Sgt. Shay Shackle conceded Tuesday that the lab doesn't measure up.

Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk are questioning the reliability of the lab's practices in eight Dakota County drug cases, focusing on the lab's lack of standardized procedures and written documentation ranging from equipment maintenance to the handling of evidence to testing procedures.

Those failures, Traub argues, could call into question large numbers of convictions based on evidence processed by the lab that handles cases for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties.

Shackle took the stand on the second day of testimony Tuesday and was questioned about the unaccredited lab's failure to meet all but two of 51 minimum professional standards set by a nonregulatory international body of forensic scientists.

"What is it about your lab, given these facts, that make it as good as or better than labs that follow the minimum recommendations?" Traub asked Shackle.

"I don't think it's as good as or better than," Shackle responded. "There's room for improvement."

Earlier in the day, senior criminalist Jennifer Jannetto testified in Dakota County District Court that she was concerned with a test conducted by co-worker Roberta DeCrans, whose findings led to drug charges against Matthew D. Jensen, one of the cases Traub and Funk have challenged.

"Do you agree with Roberta DeCrans' interpretation?" Funk asked.

"Not without further testing," Jannetto said.

The defense attorneys have underscored the lab's lack of internal monitoring.

On multiple occasions Traub and Funk pointed out that there is no peer review of test results.

Expert witness Dr. Jay Siegel, director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program at Indiana University and Purdue University, said the criminalists lacked proper training and knowledge.

Asked about the lab's absence of proficiency testing, Siegel replied, "Yes, it's not normal. It's outside the mainstream" practice.

Another key point has been the method lab staff members use to test suspected drug samples. No one could say who created the method, when and why it became the standard.

" ... This is not good science?" Funk asked.

"I would have to agree," Jannetto said.

Funk asked Jannetto if she was aware that a temperature setting of 275 degrees Celsius could turn some legal substances into methamphetamine. Jannetto said no.

Siegel, who was in the gallery during Jannetto's testimony, said the lab was producing "a certificate of analysis versus a scientific laboratory report."

He criticized the lab for not documenting how tests were conducted, which he called "fundamental to all science," not running a solvent through equipment between tests to avoid contamination and issuing reports that said substances were "proven to be a controlled substance." Siegel said "proven" was too strong a word.

Shackle also testified that the lab criminalists responsible for drug testing, including Jannetto and DeCrans, had not received training in their specific area in the past four to five years.

Testimony will continue Wednesday and Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich is expected to issue a decision late this year.

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

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