Christine Funk charges away questioning the underlying validity of the crime laboratory

Christine Funk is one of my role models. She helped me come up with the idea of the Forensic Science Geek of the Week. She is one of the folks who has taken me under her wing especially in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

For a long time, she has been charging away and trumpeting the cause of bringing the science back into forensic science. She’s a hero in my book. She is not only a very giving person in terms of her time and her knowledge, but she is a long-time Public Defender who carries on the greatest traditions of the concept of that office. I would stack her up against any private counsel any day. She is an inspiration to me. I think she will be for you as well.

She has gained some well-deserved publicity in her new quest in focusing on the underlying validity (or lack there for) in solid drug dose (pre-consumption) form controlled substance testing. The following is from Minnesota Public Radio:

More criticism of St. Paul’s crime lab in second day of drug case

by Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio

July 17, 2012

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The St. Paul Police Department’s crime lab came under harsh scrutiny by defense attorneys in the second day of a Dakota County hearing that could affect thousands of drug cases.

A senior lab analyst for the St. Paul crime lab acknowledged that test results in the case of 29-year-old Matthew Jensen might be inaccurate.

The analyst, Jennifer Jannetto, also said the testing equipment may have been contaminated in an unknown number of drug cases. The St. Paul crime lab processes up to 50 cases per day for Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties.

Jannetto was asked to review the lab’s work in Jensen’s case. Jensen, of Rochester, was charged in July 2009 with fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance. Defense attorneys have asked a Dakota County Court judge to block the evidence from entering the courtroom on the grounds that it is not scientifically reliable.

In court on Tuesday, Jannetto admitted that some of the testing in Jensen’s case may have been contaminated based on the lab’s records of maintenance performed on the equipment used to detect illegal drugs.

A July 27, 2010 entry in one maintenance log notes that part of the drug-testing machine is “partially plugged with white stuff.” A December 9, 2010 entry notes that “white crystals” were found in parts of the equipment.

Jannetto said the lab did not test either substance to determine what it was. She said it’s possible the substances were illegal drugs and could have contaminated other cases.

Minnesota law does not require accreditation for crime labs, although evidence from these labs is playing an increasingly larger role in convicting people of drug possession, murder, and other crimes.

The dispute over the procedures at the St. Paul crime lab comes at a time of increased scrutiny of science in the courtroom. Last year, an Alexandria man was released from prison after a judge found Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee gave false or incorrect testimony at trial. In May, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Nicole Beecroft for the murder of her newborn daughter after finding a county attorney had tried to prevent dissenting medical examiners from reviewing the case.

Public defender Christine Funk, during questioning of Jannetto on Tuesday, said, “You were trained at the St. Paul crime lab that, because you are not accredited, there are certain things you don’t have to keep track of?”

“Correct,” Jannetto replied.

Jannetto said the crime lab does not document several key aspects of its drug testing procedures and has not written a manual that it uses in all cases.

The hearing continues this week. Additional hearings are scheduled for August and early September. Prosecutors declined to comment on the case.

And she wins!

St. Paul crime lab stops testing drugs as police agencies flee

By David Hanners and Mara H. Gottfried
Pioneer Press
Posted:   07/18/2012 12:01:00 AM CDT
Updated:   07/18/2012 08:23:36 PM CDT

Battered by three days of testimony that exposed shoddy and unscientific work in his crime lab, St. Paul’s chief of police said he was suspending the unit’s testing of suspected drugs.

Not that Chief Thomas Smith’s decision mattered; the lab’s biggest customers — the Minnesota State Patrol, as well as Washington and Dakota counties — all said Wednesday, July 18, that they were taking their business elsewhere, including the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, after they learned of the lab’s problems in a court hearing.

“From my perspective, a lot of what we’re hearing is very troubling,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said of testimony during a three-day hearing that recessed Wednesday and could resume next month.

The Dakota County case involves a Rochester man charged with heroin possession in 2009, but the evidence elicited from several witnesses, including the crime lab’s director and two of his criminalists, could affect hundreds of criminal cases, if not more.

One expert who testified said he’d expect better science from a high school chemistry student.

“You can imagine how I feel,” Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said of the revelations about the lab. He said he and Sheriff William Hutton had met and “determined it would be prudent to advise all law enforcement agencies in Washington County that it would be a good idea, while this case is pending, in light of what we’ve heard, to send their drug cases to the BCA.”

Smith, who has headed the police department since June 2010, declined to answer questions. But in the second-to-last paragraph of his letter to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, he wrote he was suspending the crime lab’s drug testing.

He also said that it “is not looked upon as a one-time fix,” and he vowed to “review and reorganize the leadership structure” in the lab and “explore additional technical expertise.”

Coleman also declined to be interviewed about the issue, but released a statement saying Smith’s letter outlined “initial steps the police department is taking to ensure that Saint Paul crime lab work is the best it can be.”

But as one of the lab’s criminalists testified in the hearing, those “initial steps” to improve the lab’s procedures have been in the works for years, in draft form, and nothing has come of them.

“Chief Smith has my support as he continues to work to improve the crime lab and serve our community,” the mayor’s statement said. “The Saint Paul Police Department has a reputation that is second to none and all aspects of the department must be worthy of that distinction.”

But as the evidentiary hearing before District Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich in Hastings disclosed, the eight-person crime lab has significant problems.

Jay Siegel, a nationally recognized expert in forensic and analytical chemistry, told the judge the lab was “doing insufficient, unvalidated testing, being done by untrained analysts who are using equipment that’s not being cared for.”

The man who has headed St. Paul’s forensics unit since 2001, Sgt. Shay Shackle, acknowledged in his own testimony that the unaccredited lab fails to abide by numerous procedures that are considered basic for sound science.

Shackle, a former beat cop with no scientific background, conceded the lab lacked written guidelines or protocols governing how suspected drugs were to be tested. Two of his criminalists testified their only training came from what superiors told them — a practice Siegel likened to “passing on oral folklore.”

One of the public defenders who presented the evidence in the hearing said at the conclusion of Wednesday’s testimony that there was now reason to doubt the crime lab’s analysis of any suspected drugs seized from suspects.

“I think a systematic review of all of the drug cases that have come out of the St. Paul crime lab may be something to consider,” Christine Funk of the state public defender’s office said. She declined further comment.

She and Lauri Traub, a public defender in the First Judicial District, represent Matthew David Jensen, a Rochester man charged with possession of heroin in Dakota County in 2009. In March, they and a county prosecutor met with a criminalist from the crime lab to go over the evidence against Jensen.

The defense attorneys came out of the meeting worried about the lack of training and oversight of the lab personnel, and they discovered it failed to meet even minimum standards set by professional forensics organizations.

They sought the hearing to question the evidence against Jensen and at least seven other defendants. They contend that if the science is unreliable, so is the evidence — and if the evidence is unreliable, so are the criminal charges based on that evidence.

As a Dakota County prosecutor wrote in a memo after the March visit to the crime lab, “Not sure if one-time problem or systemic problem.”

The experts called by Funk and Traub said there was little doubt the problems were systemic, longstanding and legally troubling.

The hearing could affect an untold number of criminal defendants. In the past four years alone, prosecutors in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties have filed more than 3,600 drug cases, many using evidence analyzed by the St. Paul police crime lab.

While most of those cases ended with a plea bargain, some went to trial, and prosecutors in those three counties expressed concern about those cases, as well as pending cases.

“We’re waiting for the final ruling from the court, but we’ve pulled all the cases that are pending, we’re looking at them seeing what stage they’re at. And we’ll probably want to send them to the BCA. And that’s just be prudent,” said Orput, who was an assistant Hennepin County attorney before being named Washington County’s top prosecutor.

“Trust me, we’re on top of this,” he said.

Lt. Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol said that until the lab’s issues “can be resolved, the State Patrol will submit evidence for processing to the BCA and other crime labs in the state.”

“Obviously, we are concerned about the information that’s been relayed to us, and we’re in the process of working closely with the St. Paul Police Department to address these concerns,” said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.

He said Funk and Traub presented his office with nearly 3,000 pages of evidence last week on the eve of the hearing, and while his attorneys are still studying the stack, they’ve seen and heard enough to be concerned.

Backstrom’s office said that less than half the drug cases his office has prosecuted involved lab testing; generally, defendants have pleaded guilty based on preliminary testing that officers in the field perform on the seized substances. No testimony during the hearing called such testing into question.

Backstrom said he hoped to meet with Choi and Orput to figure out what to do.

“We’re going to be dealing with the other issues, but we’ve got to evaluate some of the legal aspects in cases that may have ended in pleas,” he said.

Choi, who sent a prosecutor to Hastings to sit in on the hearing, said he was surprised that questions about the lab hadn’t come up before.

“I think the public defender’s office would tell you this is the first time they’ve raised this issue. I’m very troubled by what was reported back to me,” he said. “What was troubling about all of this is it calls into question the integrity of the conclusions being made as it relates to narcotics cases. The role of a prosecutor is to be an administrator of justice.”

The Ramsey County sheriff’s office has infrequently used the St. Paul police crime lab for drug testing, said sheriff’s office spokesman Randy Gustafson. He said that most of the time, the sheriff’s office relies on its own lab for preliminary drug testing to determine probable cause, then has the BCA’s lab do final tests that are used as evidence in the courtroom.

He said that unlike the police lab, the sheriff’s office crime lab has written policies governing training and the use of equipment. But Gustafson said everyone can learn from what has happened.

“Seeing the issues that are coming up, we’ll look at those and see if we can improve what we’re doing,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement.”

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