The St. Paul police crime lab is suspending some drug testing as part of a major overhaul to repair a reputation damaged by recent revelations of shoddy work, poor training and a lack of standards.
Testimony at a Dakota County District Court hearing this week also prompted several local prosecutors and police agencies who had relied on the lab to analyze drugs to send their cases to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) instead.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Mayor Chris Coleman, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said that the department will review and reorganize leadership in the lab, explore additional technical expertise and review pending narcotics cases. Coleman declined to discuss the lab, but he issued a written statement supporting Smith's actions.
Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk had called for the hearing that challenged the St. Paul lab's work in eight drug cases and suggested the problems could cast doubt on many more past and pending prosecutions. Even several staff members admitted that their work was not good science.
"Certainly, we were surprised at some of the answers -- kind of stupefied by some of them," said Fred Fink, head of the Washington County attorney's criminal division.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he met Wednesday morning with Sheriff William Hutton and asked that all 11 suburban police agencies in the county use the BCA lab. The Ramsey and Dakota county attorney's offices also directed agencies to stay away from the St. Paul lab.
"All of us in law enforcement were surprised," Orput said of the testimony. "We thought it would be prudent to start using the BCA immediately."
A Ramsey County prosecutor sat in on the first two days of testimony and reported back to County Attorney John Choi on Wednesday. Choi said the debriefing was "troubling."
Dakota County District Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich's decision on the scientific credibility of evidence in the eight cases challenged by Traub and Funk is not expected until late this year. But concern already has reached the point that Choi, Orput and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom are planning to review cases from their offices.
Funk endorsed such an evaluation, saying, "I think a systematic review of all the drug cases that have come out of the St. Paul crime lab might be something that is appropriate to consider."
Cases in the hundreds
Washington County has charged 1,244 drug cases between 2007 and this month. Ramsey County charged 3,549 drug cases between 2007 and June. Dakota County charges about 400 drug cases each year. Most of those were tested by the St. Paul lab; Choi and Backstrom said a high number of those cases ended in guilty pleas.
It's unclear how far back the reviews will extend and what could happen with those cases. Choi said they are dealing with "very complex legal issues."
Testimony this week showed that serious lapses have been the norm for decades at the unaccredited lab.
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 review.
Staff members also testified that there is no proficiency testing to ensure skill levels are adequate and no protocol in place to address mistakes. Basic, fundamental scientific methods were being ignored, defense experts testified.
Police spokesman Howie Padilla said the lab will immediately stop performing the final drug tests used in trials but will still conduct "presumptive tests," which are preliminary and guide charging decisions.
More testimony in the court hearing is expected. Meanwhile, the state crime lab is gearing up for additional work.
"The BCA strives to provide the highest quality test results in the fastest turnaround time possible," spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said. "Right now, it's hard to know whether additional evidence submissions would impact turnaround time because we don't yet know the volume coming our way. Our lab is working to estimate the numbers."
Oliveira also said that the BCA conducts tests for free. Padilla said he couldn't address whether the St. Paul lab had charged for its drug tests.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708