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St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

E-mails: St. Paul crime lab worries didn't register with police

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • August 30, 2012 - 11:01 PM

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith and key department leaders were caught off guard by testimony earlier this summer that exposed major failings in their crime lab, according to more than 4,700 pages of e-mails and memos released by the department Thursday.

Correspondence leading up to a Dakota County District Court hearing in mid-July show that the scope of apparent problems had barely registered with department leadership even though two public defenders had been aggressively investigating the lab since late March.

Smith's executive assistant, Julia Rust, e-mailed the chief on July 12 to schedule a meeting including Senior Cmdr. Gregory Pye, who worked in the crime lab, and a representative from the Dakota County attorney's office.

"No, put it off until next week," Smith wrote to Rust about 12:46 p.m. on July 12. "This does not have to be addressed tomorrow."

"It might need to be addressed tomorrow because it involves a court case Monday [July 16] morning," Rust responded about 10 minutes later. "I have the details if you want to call me. Don't want to put in an e-mail."

That same day, Sgt. Greg Gravesen e-mailed Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen with his concerns about the hearing. Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk were challenging the scientific credibility of the lab's work in a number of Dakota County drug cases.

"I think this is going to be REALLY, REALLY bad," Gravesen wrote.

"On the crime lab. I do not think things are bad," Wuorinen replied the next day.

Testimony that began July 16 in Dakota County revealed that the lab had no written, standardized testing procedures, no peer review of test results and no "validation studies" to show that their cleaning and testing procedures worked.

Testimony continued July 17, with Sgt. Shay Shackle, who was then the head of the crime lab, conceding on the witness stand that the lab was not "as good as or better than" other labs. Lab criminalist Jennifer Jannetto testified that she could not support a co-worker's heroin test result without further vetting.

"As you can imagine I am disappointed in what is being said in court (and that is putting things very mildly)," Wuorinen wrote in an e-mail that day.

On July 18, Wuorinen wrote Smith about 7:11 a.m.

"Had a bad night for sleeping," she said, before referencing a meeting scheduled with the mayor's office that day.

"We do need as an [administration] talk about our other challenge," Smith replied. "We may have to do some things immediately and will need a short-, mid- and long-term plan."

Later that day Smith suspended the lab's drug testing, and three counties that relied on his department for the service turned to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

In the following weeks, Shackle was replaced, county attorneys began reviewing past and pending cases, and outside experts were hired to review the lab.

Testimony in the crime lab's work continued for two days in August and is scheduled to resume Sept. 6 and 7.

Traub and Funk originally sought to bring doubt on the lab's work so that evidence would be thrown out of drug cases. The Dakota County attorney's office agreed to dismiss evidence from St. Paul's lab but wants the BCA to retest pending cases.

The next hearings will focus on whether the lab's handling of evidence is so questionable that the BCA should not be allowed to retest those samples because of possible contamination.

Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich is expected to issue a decision later this year.

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

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