Prosecutor says crime labs have similar procedures

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • November 19, 2012 - 9:09 PM

Evidence handling at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab is so similar to practices at the St. Paul police crime lab that fear of contamination at the latter is not enough to disqualify evidence, a Dakota County prosecutor said Monday.

In a memorandum filed Friday, Chief Deputy Dakota County Attorney Phil Prokopowicz drew parallels between the two labs to support his assertion that the BCA results are admissible in court.

"Much of the process is strikingly similar" between the labs, Prokopowicz wrote. "Given the similarities in the protocols (or lack of written protocols) and practices ... it is equally likely that the jury will reject or place limited weight to defendants' assertions of contamination by the [St. Paul police crime lab]."

Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk are trying to keep BCA test results out of four Dakota County drug cases because the tests were conducted using evidence first handled by the St. Paul police lab, which has been under fire for shoddy work and undocumented testing procedures. Traub and Funk contend that because of those lax standards for cleanliness, evidence handling and testing, the samples could have been contaminated in St. Paul before the BCA received them.

Prokopowicz's memorandum comes after eight days of testimony spread over four months that revealed widespread problems with the unaccredited St. Paul police crime lab, which shuttered its drug testing as a result.

Testimony started in July and ended in October with BCA criminalist Eric Grunwald, who retested evidence in the contested cases. He testified that much like St. Paul police criminalists, he used his own discretion about when, how and how often he cleaned his desk and tools. He also testified that he would leave unsealed evidence in one room while testing a sample in another room, a common practice in St. Paul.

Retesting by the accredited BCA lab supported St. Paul's results in the contested cases. In two unrelated cases, BCA results contradicted St. Paul's results, leading to the dismissal of one case in Ramsey County District Court.

Evidence retested by the BCA was in "substantially the same condition" as when first seized by police, Prokopowicz wrote, adding that the defense did not produce any direct or circumstantial evidence of contamination.

Prokopowicz also noted that at trial the state would present other evidence to show context, including information that one defendant was allegedly suffering an overdose-related seizure when evidence was collected.

Defense attorneys hammered hard at practices in the St. Paul crime lab, winning an early victory when prosecutors voluntarily dropped St. Paul's test results from the cases. That was the initial focus of the hearing, but when prosecutors sought to admit BCA tests conducted using the same evidence, Traub and Funk challenged that, switching course mid-hearing.

Traub and Funk highlighted the absence of written protocol for cleanliness and evidence handling, poor maintenance of testing instruments and the lack of checks and balances for questionable test results.

The public defenders don't have to prove that there was contamination at the police crime lab, just that the possibility is so high that it could bring the BCA's results into question. Traub and Funk will file their own memorandum stating their case in early December. Prokopowicz will file a rebuttal by Dec. 19, and Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich will issue a decision within 90 days.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith suspended all drug testing this summer and overhauled the lab's leadership. Consultants were later hired to review and revamp all aspects of the lab's work.

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

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