Senior police officials knew of crime lab problems months agoby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said he became aware of serious concerns about his department's crime lab in the past week, but court records show that Smith's assistant chief and a senior commander knew about the problems months ago.
Problems with the crime lab's work came to the public's attention this week at a hearing in Dakota County District Court. At the hearing, attorneys representing Matthew Jensen, a Rochester man charged with fifth-degree drug possession, asked a judge to throw out evidence processed by the St. Paul Police Department crime lab.
They questioned crime lab employees, who testified that the lab does not follow any written procedures for drug testing cases and that the lab's equipment might be contaminated with cocaine from previous drug tests.
Although the public did not become aware of the problems until this week, senior police officials, including Assistant Police Chief Kathy Wuorinen, who reports directly to Smith, and Senior Commander Greg Pye knew about the concerns for months, according to court records.
Despite the concerns, for months the crime lab continued processing evidence and sending it to prosecutors to use to convict people of drug possession. The lab's drug testing unit was shut down Wednesday -- after three days of testimony about the crime lab's failure to follow basic scientific protocols.
Prosecutors in Washington, Ramsey and Dakota counties who rely on the lab have asked the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to retest evidence in pending cases. Prosecutors plan to meet within the next few weeks to decide how to address the thousands of drug cases that have already been prosecuted.
Wuorinen and Pye have been subpoenaed in the Dakota County case but have not been called to testify yet. St. Paul Police Department spokesman Howie Padilla said in an email that he is not aware of whether Chief Smith knew of the subpoenas.
"Exactly who knew what -- that's a fair question and in the coming days, as part of this review, I have no doubts that'll come out," Padilla said at a news conference Thursday. "Somewhere along the line somebody should've said something to someone."
Wuorinen, reached on Friday morning, declined to say whether she informed Smith of the problems at the crime lab. Pye did not respond to an email and voicemail Friday seeking comment.
RECORDS SHOW INVOLVEMENT OF TOP POLICE OFFICIALS
The paper trail goes back to March 30, when defense attorneys met with Dakota County prosecutor Vance Grannis III and crime lab employee Kari McDermott to discuss problems at the lab. The prosecutor's notes from that meeting indicate the severity of the problems.
Grannis declined to say whether he notified anyone at the Dakota County Attorney's Office or the St. Paul Police Department about the meeting. Padilla said he does not know whether anyone informed Smith of the meetings. Smith did not address the matter during a news conference Thursday.
However, the March 30 crime lab meeting did not go unnoticed by other police officials.
The assistant police chief received a list of questions from Dakota County about the crime lab after the meeting, according to lab worker Kari McDermott, who made the remarks while testifying at a July 5 hearing in the case of Jose Lopez, a West St. Paul resident charged with a first-degree drug offense. She also said lab officials also received a copy of the notes from the meeting.
The transcript from that July 5 hearing has been overlooked thus far in the efforts to determine who knew about the problems at the lab.
At the hearing, defense attorney Lauri Traub questioned McDermott about whether the crime lab took any steps to make improvements based on the concerns raised in the March 30 meeting notes.
"Did you have discussions in your crime lab about those notes?" Traub asked.
"Yes, we did," McDermott said.
"And, be fair to say that management wasn't very happy with some of the things that you shared with us?"
By the time of the July 5 hearing, Traub, the public defender, had been investigating the lab's procedures for months and was preparing to challenge the its findings in the Jensen case. As part of that investigation, Traub asked prosecutors to turn over evidence of any discussions about how to improve the crime lab.
Traub said she did not know that the assistant police chief was aware of the crime lab meeting until McDermott testified in court. Later that day, Traub sent a stern letter to Grannis, accusing the Dakota County Attorney's Office of not releasing documents of meetings about the crime lab, in violation of the discovery process.
"I am tremendously disappointed to find out that someone associated with your office has been less than candid in the discovery process and hope this is an isolated incident that you can quickly correct," Traub wrote.
"You might recall that several times after our meeting with Kari McDermott at the St. Paul Police Crime Lab I asked you if you or anyone associated with your office, including but not limited o the Dakota County Drug Task Force or the Dakota County Sheriff's Office, sent your notes from the notes to anyone at the SPPDCL (St. Paul Police Department Crime Lab)," the letter said.
"You indicated you did not, no one from your office did, and that you had specifically checked with Tim Leslie of the sheriff's department and the drug task force and they indicated they did not."
She continued, "So imagine my surprise when today in court, under oath, Ms. McDermott testified she had seen your notes and she believed they were sent to her Assistant Chief via email. Furthermore she testified they came from someone associated with your office and they had been discussed at some length in the crime lab. In fact, she testified she got in trouble for them."
TESTIMONY: FAILURE TO DOCUMENT PROCEDURES
Even the startling testimony this week about the lab's failure to follow basic scientific protocols was not new.
McDermott's earlier testimony addresses many of the concerns that resurfaced this week.
At the July 5 hearing, McDermott said the lab has no written standard operating procedures and that an effort to draft those procedures had been ongoing for at least a year. She acknowledged the lab does not document every step of the drug testing process and does not document when it calibrates equipment to make sure it is working properly.
Traub asked McDermott many of the same questions that she asked at the hearing this week. For example, she asked about the lab's procedures for documenting how lab employees mix chemicals to be used in drug testing. McDermott said the lab does not keep a formal record and instead writes the information on the chemical bottle.
"So, when the bottle is empty, that information is thrown away with the bottle?" Traub asked.
"And information such as lot numbers, or expiration dates of chemicals can be important?"
"Because you might come to court on a case six months after you did the test and there is no records of what chemicals you used?"
"And you have no independent recollection of that information?"
"And there would be no way to verify if the chemicals you used in a test, like a preliminary color change test, were good?"
Traub concluded by asking, "You don't, in your lab, have a lot of the basic minimum standards in place?"
"I guess I don't know what the minimum standards are," McDermott said.
Padilla, the St. Paul Police Department spokesman, said the department will conduct a thorough review to determine why the crime lab's problems did not receive more immediate attention.
- All Things Considered, 07/20/2012, 4:49 p.m.