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Madeleine Baran, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published February 19 2013

St. Paul crime lab problems are worse than first thought

ST. PAUL – Two independent consultants hired to review the St. Paul police crime lab found major errors in almost every area of the lab’s work, including the fingerprint and crime scene evidence processing that has continued after the lab’s drug testing was stopped in July.

The failures include sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic scientific procedures, according to recently released reports. Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a “technical reference” in at least one drug case.

Consultants found lab employees mistakenly classified at least one-third of all fingerprints as unidentifiable and destroyed them. Case files “were largely unintelligible,” consultants found. The lab lacked any clean area designated for the review and collection of DNA evidence. The lab stored crime scene photos on a computer that anyone could access without a password. Conditions at the lab violated federal safety and health requirements.

However, consultants did not find lab employees intentionally mishandled cases or matched crime scene fingerprints to innocent people.

The city of St. Paul hired the two consulting firms in August to review the St. Paul police lab’s work after lab employees testified in July that they did not follow any standard operating procedures and may have relied on contaminated equipment. The testimony threw thousands of drug convictions into question. A judge has yet to issue a ruling in the case that exposed the lab’s faulty work.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said he was concerned about the consultants’ findings and will be making changes to improve lab work.

The lab may eventually resume drug testing, Smith said, but he would not say when that would occur.

Texas-based Integrated Forensic Laboratories, one of the consulting firms, reviewed 100 controlled substance cases selected by the St. Paul Police Department in late 2012. In a report dated Jan. 31, 2013, it recommended the lab “cease operations” until police hire skilled professionals to run the lab.

“Errors were noted in the majority of case files examined,” the Integrated Forensic Laboratories’ report said, “ranging from minor typographical errors to misidentification of a controlled substance.”

Lab employees identified controlled substances “using methods that were inadequate or blatantly wrong,” according to the company’s report. The review found no indication that the lab performed basic maintenance on its drug testing equipment.

The company recommended “comprehensive retesting” of St. Paul police cases by an accredited lab, but its report did not specify whether the retesting should include all evidence tested at the St. Paul lab or just more recent cases.

Iowa-based Schwarz Forensic Enterprises conducted a separate review of the lab’s fingerprint and crime scene units from Aug. 30 to Sept. 19, 2012. The consulting firm examined 246 randomly selected fingerprint cases. It also reviewed 73 controlled substance cases selected by the police department.

More than 40 percent of the fingerprint cases involved “seriously deficient work” by lab employees, the company found. Lab employees appeared to lack even the most basic understanding of how to inspect a fingerprint. Many fingerprints were destroyed because lab employees wrongly believed they were unusable.

The lab’s fingerprint unit remains open despite the findings.

Schwarz Forensic Enterprises’ review of 73 drug cases selected by police found nine instances of “potential contamination” of evidence. All nine instances involved contamination from one item to another in the same criminal case. The review did not find any evidence of contamination from one case to another.

The company advised police to hire a professional who can serve as a quality manager. It recommended that the lab pursue accreditation by developing policies, procedures and practices that meet scientific standards and hire an outside agency to audit the lab after it makes changes.

It also suggested the lab develop a computerized system to track cases and a statistical reporting system to monitor trends and changes.