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St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

St. Paul is paying $140,800 to evaluate, revamp crime lab

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • September 6, 2012 - 9:55 PM

St. Paul is paying outside agencies about $140,000 to evaluate, revamp and train the police crime lab's drug chemistry, latent print and crime scene units in the wake of courtroom testimony that has cast doubt on the lab's credibility.

Details of the contracts were released on Thursday as testimony in Dakota County District Court continued to examine shoddy practices in the lab's narcotics testing. Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk successfully got the lab's test results thrown out of some Dakota County drug cases because of unscientific practices that will be addressed by the review.

Testimony on Thursday focused on whether the lab's handling of suspected drug evidence was so questionable that the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) should be precluded from retesting samples because of possible contamination.

Conflicting testimony by two criminalists who conduct drug tests seemed to bolster claims that the lab failed to adhere to standardized practices in handling evidence. Jennifer Jannetto testified that she typically used one eyedropper-like tool to inject a liquid into multiple tubes containing suspected drug samples when the samples came from one case. Kari McDermott later testified that she always used a new tool for each tube because of possible contamination if the tool touches multiple tubes.

Officer Jamie Sipes of the lab's latent print unit testified that on one occasion he saw evidence stored in a hallway for more than a day because there wasn't enough room in designated storage areas. Sipes, who testified that materials were not narcotics, included the incident in an internal report examining what steps the department needed to take to be accredited.

Sipes also testified that police officers have access to lockers by the crime lab's lobby that they can place evidence into after hours. Officers lock them with padlocks that only lab staff can access, he said.

Policy on guests

The public defenders questioned a now-defunct policy that allowed staff to bring in outside guests as long as they were approved by Sgt. Shay Shackle, who oversaw the lab until Chief Thomas Smith replaced him this summer.

They also presented testimony from the criminalists that revealed they would leave evidence unattended on their work stations when they went into a different room to test suspected drugs.

Under questioning by Dakota County Chief Deputy Attorney Phil Prokopowicz, however, McDermott testified that she never saw evidence that appeared to be tampered with.

Only the lab's drug testing has been challenged in courtroom testimony, but the contracts signed in late August will address a wide swath of its work.

"The chief has always said ... he wants to go ahead and take the opportunity to take a thorough look at the lab," said police spokesman Howie Padilla. "We want to know about the entire lab."

Padilla said the review is in its early stages. He declined to provide a timeline for when it would be completed.

Integrated Forensics Laboratories of Euless, Texas, will audit the narcotics testing, reviewing about 100 cases, holding up to seven training classes, administering competency tests to staff, and helping create or review standard operating procedures (SOPs), among other work.

The city's contract with Integrated Forensics Laboratory stipulates a maximum payment of $68,800.

Schwarz Forensics Enterprises of Ankeny, Iowa, will review the lab's latent print comparison and processing units and the crime scene unit. That contract can't exceed $72,000.

Testimony about the lab began in July, exposing widespread problems with its narcotics testing, including no vetting of questionable results, no validation studies to prove that work surfaces and tools were sufficiently sterilized and no ongoing testing of staff competency.

The revelations set major changes into motion, putting a stop to the lab's drug testing and initiating a review of past and pending drug cases in Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties. Traub and Funk are challenging the lab's work in four Dakota County cases.

The often contentious hearing resumed in August and continues Friday and on Oct. 23.

Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich is expected to issue her decision in the case later this year.

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

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