Independent reviews of the troubled St. Paul police crime lab found widespread failings in staff skills, poorly maintained testing instruments and confusing and illegible lab reports, according to audits released Thursday.
All aspects of the lab's work were reviewed last year after two public defenders challenged its scientific credibility in drug cases, prompting other legal challenges and major changes that have slowly unfolded over the past several months. Integrated Forensic Laboratories (IFL) reviewed 100 controlled substance cases tested by the lab and found they did not meet "minimal reporting requirements that are generally accepted by the forensic chemistry community."
"Errors were noted in the majority of case files examined, ranging from minor typographical errors to misidentification of a controlled substance," according to a report written by IFL. "Substances were identified using methods that were inadequate or blatantly wrong... . Reports greatly overstated the results and the reporting language was not standardized."
The court challenge led the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to retest drug cases first tested by St. Paul police for Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties. The BCA alerted the Dakota County attorney's office Thursday that it tested a sample positive for methamphetamine that police tested negative for narcotics, said Phil Prokopowicz, chief deputy Dakota County attorney.
It's the second time the BCA tested a Dakota County case positive for drugs when St. Paul hadn't, and the third time BCA and St. Paul police results contradicted each other. A Ramsey County case was dismissed last year when the BCA found no narcotics; police had identified the evidence as methamphetamine.
Cases in limbo
Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk initially sought to throw out St. Paul's results in four Dakota County drug cases, but after testimony began last July, prosecutors voluntarily withdrew the lab's results. Traub and Funk then asked Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich to prohibit test results from the BCA, asserting that the evidence was first handled by the police lab and was possibly exposed to contamination.
That fight has prompted defense attorneys to challenge BCA results in about a dozen cases in Ramsey County District Court because the evidence was first tested at the police lab, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. The court is working to aggregate the cases into one hearing.
"We did believe that people would be challenging a whole host of things as it relates to the crime lab," Choi said.
The lab's narcotics testing took the hardest hit in the audits, but a separate review of the lab's latent print work by Schwarz Forensic Enterprises (SFE) found "no evidence of erroneous identifications" by latent print examiners, but did find "seriously deficient work."
Choi, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput commended St. Paul police for initiating the independent reviews.
"I know it's hard to read, but as ministers of justice we need to have that confidence in crime labs," Orput said. "This is the first step toward rebuilding the confidence."
Police Chief Thomas Smith and Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen, who oversees the lab, said they welcome the audits and the chance to improve the lab and rebuild trust with citizens and law enforcement.
"Yes, this has been a long, arduous and sometimes-painful process," Smith said.
It's unclear what effect the lab's performance will have on past cases, but changes were made even before the audits became public. Smith suspended all of the lab's work last summer, three civilian criminalists responsible mostly for narcotics testing were laid off in November, and the City Council last week approved $1 million in changes to the lab.
Police plan to move drug testing off-site by funding two positions at the accredited BCA lab and focus on earning accreditation for St. Paul's in-house crime scene processing and response and fingerprint work. New job classifications with more stringent qualifications were recently approved and posted for lab hires.
Smith said he'd like to bring drug testing back in-house at some point, but could not say when that might happen. The chief said he didn't want to speculate on who was to blame for systemic failings at the lab, but said it's his responsibility to rectify the problems. He cited funding shortfalls as a contributor to the lab's problems.
Much of IFL's report echoed testimony from last year. According to its report: The lab's main testing instruments were "in very poor operating condition." The instruments had expired, dirty and contaminated parts. "Blanks," which are when solvents are run through the instruments to check for contamination, were not typically used for quality assurance.
Language use was flagged by IFL as problematic in a number of areas. In several instances, lab reports included descriptions that were subjective and inconsistent, writing was illegible and language was not scientifically sound.
"The term 'PROVES' was used repeatedly with only presumptive analysis," IFL wrote. "This is not a proper, scientific term."
Wikipedia was cited as a technical reference in one case. In another, staff used a question mark to indicate a test result for suspected methamphetamine.
"There is no explanation or definition for this term," IFL's report said of the punctuation mark. "The sample should have been re-tested."
Fingerprint lab faulted
Schwarz Forensic Enterprise's review of 246 randomly selected latent print cases found no evidence that lab staff made wrong identifications. But in 103 cases, about 42 percent, there was "seriously deficient" work because "latent prints of value were located where none had been reported," and because those prints were traced to the same or different subject in the case, the SFE report said.
Other issues identified by SFE include: No ongoing proficiency tests for staff, no standard operating procedures, no system to ensure that patrol and investigative officers who collected prints in the course of their normal duties were qualified to perform the work and no requirement to document where a print came from or its orientation.
Messerich has until next month to issue her decision in the Dakota County cases, which won't consider the audit unless defense attorneys seek to reopen the court record and submit it as evidence. Traub said that's something they will discuss.
The state public defender's office is reviewing about 1,700 convictions from the past two years based on police lab tests for possible post-conviction relief, and has identified 13,968 convictions going back to 2001.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib