As San Francisco prosecutors weigh dismissing 1,400 drug cases this week amid the Police Department’s crime lab scandal, defense attorneys from the public defender’s office are sorting through thousands of recent drug convictions for possible challenges.
Internal and external investigations into the lab were prompted by allegations a former civilian employee, Deborah Madden, took small amounts of cocaine last year from evidence at the lab. Police Chief George Gascon has ordered drug testing at the lab temporarily halted during the investigations.
The public defender’s office is now looking at 5,000 cases stretching back over the past two years–in which people were either convicted at trial or pleaded guilty–to see which ones had evidence handled by Madden, according to spokeswoman Tamara Barak Aparton. She added that most of the cases being reviewed were more recent than two years old.
“We’re starting at 5,000 … it could go back further, it could include cases handled by other criminalists … this is our starting point,” Barak Aparton said.
It is not yet known how many of those convictions would actually be challenged.
“I can’t comment about it because nothing’s been filed,” district attorney’s office spokesman Brian Buckelew responded. “Any comment as to the substance is obviously premature.”
Prosecutors said earlier today that in addition to the approximately 500 drug cases the district attorney’s office has already dismissed or temporarily discharged pending drug testing at outside labs, about 1,400 other cases this week are being considered for dismissal.
Buckelew said that decisions are expected later this week on “all open drug cases that have been processed through the police crime lab.”
Prosecutors will likely try to keep about 300 cases “that are recent arrests that have not had narcotics tested in any lab, so they’re pure cases,” Buckelew said.
“We’ll charge those cases as soon as we get the test results from the outside labs,” he said.
While the 1,400 cases remain “in jeopardy,” Buckelew said a final decision has not yet been made. Those include about 400 minor cases, typically involving suspected drug possession, that have been sent to drug rehabilitation programs or drug court.
In addition to the allegations against Madden, investigators recently discovered a discrepancy in a sample of drugs from the lab that included Oxycontin.
Assistant Chief Jeff Godown, who is heading the Police Department’s investigation into the lab, said 17 pills were discovered missing during a retest of evidence by an outside crime lab. The pills were part of a sample of more than 100 pills that included Oxycontin and other drugs, he said. The reason for the discrepancy has not yet been determined.
Inconsistencies have also been found in the weights of some drug samples tested at the lab.
Police Chief George Gascon has said he found out about the allegations concerning Madden in late February. He ordered the lab to cease drug testing on March 9.
Madden, 60, who went on leave in December and retired March 1, has not been charged in connection with the crime lab investigation.
Godown said all crime lab employees, not just Madden, are a focus of the investigation.
“We are looking at all the employees that worked there at the lab during that time, whether they have involvement or not,” Godown said.
“We’re going to leave no stone unturned to determine the extent of the misconduct that was occurring in there,” he said.
A report on the lab by the California Department of Justice, which is conducting an outside audit, was expected today, according to police. Godown said this morning he had not seen it yet.
While the fate of San Francisco’s crime lab has not been determined, Godown insisted, “I want the lab to be back up and running.”
“I don’t want to have to continue to outsource testing forever,” he said.
Godown dismissed calls for an independent lab. Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Jim Norris, the lab’s former director until 2004, made the case last week for a lab of independent scientists.
Godown said the crime lab should remain under police authority.
“We just need a lab that’s running correctly,” he said.