Testimony: Crime lab problems could go beyond drug cases
St. Paul, Minn. — The problems at the St. Paul Police Department crime lab may extend to the entire lab operation, not just the drug testing unit, defense attorneys indicated Thursday at a Dakota County District Court hearing.
The latest allegations come as two public defenders continue to challenge the evidence in several drug cases in Dakota County. The St. Paul Police Department suspended drug testing at the lab in July after employees testified that they did not follow any standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated with illegal drugs. The lab performed thousands of drug tests for Dakota, Washington and Ramsey Counties and the Minnesota State Patrol. The problems at the lab have thrown those cases into question.
Prosecutors have asked the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state-run accredited crime lab, to retest evidence that was originally sent to the St. Paul lab.
The ongoing hearing in Dakota County will determine whether the evidence in several drug cases can be reliably retested. Public defenders Christine Funk and Lauri Traub argue the lab could be contaminated and therefore any retesting by another lab could also be contaminated and should not be allowed into court.
The St. Paul crime lab was not shut down entirely. It continues to process and analyze fingerprints and process evidence from crime scenes. However, testimony in court Thursday raised questions about whether the entire lab could be contaminated and whether non-drug evidence is stored in a secure place.
In court Thursday, defense attorneys asked crime lab employees and top police officials how the lab vents the fumes from its two drug testing machines. The question is important, defense attorneys said, because if the machines are not properly vented, they could spew carcinogens and illegal drugs into the lab. The lab employees, along with Assistant Police Chief Kathy Wuorinen and Senior Commander Gregory Pye, who oversee the lab operations, testified they did not know anything about the venting equipment or if anyone had ever tested it to make sure it worked. No one could recall if anyone ever tested surfaces in the lab to verify the lab was not contaminated.
One crime lab employee said she assumed the vent worked because she could hear it running. However, no one could recall seeing anyone come into the lab to perform any maintenance on the vent or conduct any routine checks.
The hearing also raised new questions about whether the lab stores evidence properly. St. Paul Police Officer Jamie Sipes, who works in the crime lab, testified that he saw evidence stored in the lab hallway on several occasions, although he said it is not "a routine practice."
He said the head of the crime lab, Sgt. Shay Shackle, who has since been replaced, once stored a large amount of evidence in a hallway for more than a day.
Sipes said the evidence was part of "a rather long case that had been assigned to Sgt. Shackle that exceeded our storage." Sipes said the evidence was packaged and he was not sure what it contained, but he assumed it was not illegal drugs. The lab stores illegal drugs in a locked vault, according to lab employees and police officials. It stores other evidence in a locked property room and in secure storage lockers.
The lab's hallway is accessible to all crime lab employees. Until recently, non-crime lab employees could visit if they had authorization from the lab director and were accompanied by a lab employee.
Testimony from lab employees also indicated that some employees were more careful than others about avoiding contamination.
For example, crime lab employees previously testified that they always change gloves between cases, but on Thursday crime lab employee Jennifer Jannetto acknowledged she sometimes did not change her gloves immediately after a test if she did not think she touched any drugs. She said she would then clean her work area while wearing the gloves and would later discard them.
Crime lab employees have also previously testified that they always clean their tools after each test, but Jannetto said Thursday there are some cases in which she would not clean her tools in between tests.
For example, she said, if police had several bags of suspected drugs from the same defendant and all of the substances looked similar, she would not probably not clean the tools in between testing each sample. Instead, she said, she would just flip the instrument around and use the other end of it.
"If the packages look similar, you assume that they're the same substance?" Funk, the public defender, asked.
"That's how I was trained," Jannetto replied.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned lab employees about whether they believed the lab was contaminated.
"Based on your training and experience, do you believe there's any widespread contamination in the crime lab?" Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz said.
"No," said crime lab employee Kari McDermott.
However, upon further questioning from the defense, McDermott said she might not know if the lab was contaminated.
"There could be contamination," she said. "I'm just saying it's not all the time."
The hearing continues Friday. A ruling is not expected for several months.