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Associated Press, Published July 26 2012

Minnesota crime labs scrutinized after St. Paul issues

ST. PAUL – Minnesota public defenders plan to review cases involving evidence handled by unaccredited crime labs after criminalists and the director of a lab in St. Paul testified that procedures were lax and that they lacked sufficient training in testing narcotics.

As many as 18 such labs may be operating with standards no better than those recently found at the St. Paul lab, State Public Defender John Stuart said.

“The way the lab was operating regarding drugs raises questions about whether they have proper procedures or validation for fingerprints or ballistics or testing paint chips,” Stuart said. “At this point, we honestly don’t know.”

He said that meant some people may have been unfairly convicted.

“We’re concerned about people convicted of drug cases where this lab was involved. We’re developing lists of clients who may be eligible for post-conviction relief,” Stuart said.

There are “questions about what the other unaccredited labs all around the state of Minnesota are doing,” he said.

The director of the St. Paul lab and two criminalists recently testified that they had little training in testing suspected narcotics. They also said the lab had no written procedures and basic scientific guidelines were ignored. St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith has suspended drug testing at his department’s lab. Most departments from other cities that had used the St. Paul lab are now sending evidence to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s two accredited labs.

Prosecutors whose counties used the St. Paul lab have said they will review cases that it handled, but they predicted the number affected will be minimal because most drug cases end in plea bargains.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said his office looked at five years of drug cases and found nothing that hinged on testimony from the St. Paul lab’s criminalists.

“I don’t see this as having any impact at all except, if any, a flood of cases at the BCA,” Orput said. “We’ve been given assurance by the BCA that there is no backlog and that they’ll prioritize cases – first-degree cases will come first, fifth-degree cases will come last.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a crisis,” Orput said.

Minnesota has four accredited public crime labs.

Brian Kasbohm, who recently retired as head of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office accredited lab, said as many as 18 unaccredited labs might be doing police forensics work throughout the state.

Stuart said he had no idea what a statewide review of unaccredited labs might find or how long it might take.

“Nobody wants the criminal justice system to come unraveled,” he said. “People deserve to have labs they can depend on. The courts deserve it, the public deserves it. But now it’s obvious we have to take a good long look at what’s going on in the crime labs around the state.”

Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday that he would support legislation requiring accreditation of crime labs if lawmakers pass such a bill.

“If they’re going to make determinations that are going to affect people’s lives – guilt and innocence and the like – then they need to perform to the highest possible standards,” he said.


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