Court hearing contentious in St. Paul crime lab caseby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Questions about drug testing at the St. Paul Police Department crime lab were met with sighs, smiles, glares, and barely stifled laughter by a crime lab employee during a contentious hearing Friday in Dakota County District Court.
Public defender Lauri Traub asked St. Paul crime lab employee Roberta DeCrans about four cases in which DeCrans tested evidence for the presence of illegal drugs. Is it possible, Traub asked, that evidence could have been contaminated while at the lab?
"I think a lot of things are possible," DeCrans replied.
The testimony took place during the fifth day of a hearing before Dakota County District Court Judge Kathryn Messerich. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether evidence kept at the St. Paul Police Department crime lab is reliable enough to be admitted into court in several drug possession cases.
The first three days of the hearing, which began in July, led to the suspension of all drug testing at the St. Paul crime lab. The lab performed drug testing for Ramsey, Washington, and Dakota Counties. Employees testified in July that the lab lacked written standard operating procedures and may have relied on contaminated equipment.
After the lab suspended drug testing, prosecutors decided not to use any of the lab's test results and asked the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to retest evidence in drug cases. However, public defenders argued that evidence still could have been contaminated while it was stored at the St. Paul lab. If the evidence was contaminated, it could not be reliably retested by any lab and should be discarded entirely, they said.
HEATED TESTIMONY ABOUT POSSIBLE LAB CONTAMINATION
Much of the testimony Friday focused on whether DeCrans documented all the steps she took when testing evidence for the presence of illegal drugs.
"You understand in science if you don't write it down, it didn't happen?" Traub, the public defender, asked.
"I don't know," DeCrans said. Not everything is written down all of the time, she said.
DeCrans raised her voice and added, "You have no clue what I did ... You can't speak for me."
She then sighed, smiled, and took a sip of water.
When defense attorneys asked DeCrans to draw the layout of the St. Paul crime lab, DeCrans was reluctant to comply with the request.
"I am not an artist," DeCrans said.
"Neither am I," Traub replied.
After several minutes of arguing back and forth, DeCrans finally agreed to draw the basic layout of the lab.
Defense attorneys called attention to unusual test results in two cases. The results, they said, could be caused by contamination. Traub, the public defender, noted that in one of the cases, DeCrans noticed the unusual result, wrote it down in the file, and ran a solvent through the machine to see if the problem went away.
However, in another case, there is no indication DeCrans did anything in response to an unusual test result, according to the case file. When asked about the case, DeCrans said she could not remember what she did.
LEGAL CHALLENGE IS FAR FROM OVER
At Friday's hearing, the number of defendants dropped from seven to four, after Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz said there was not enough evidence left over for retesting in three cases.
Prokopowicz said he will dismiss the drug possession charges against those three defendants, but he said some of the defendants may face other charges, such as possession of drug paraphernalia.
Additional court dates are scheduled for Sept. 6 and Sept. 7. Judge Messerich is not expected to rule on the case for several months.