The upheaval over alleged improprieties in the San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab led prosecutors today to dismiss nearly 50 drug cases set to go to trial, and according to the district attorney’s office, hundreds more are being reviewed for possible dismissal.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has already had to dismiss or temporarily discharge hundreds of new or pre-trial drug cases because of police Chief George Gascon’s March 9 order halting drug testing at the lab, after allegations that former lab employee Deborah Madden took small amounts of cocaine from evidence.
Madden, 60, has not been charged.
Today, prosecutors abandoned 46 cases scheduled for trial that involved drug evidence tested at the lab, district attorney’s office spokesman Brian Buckelew said.
In one case, Mario Bell, 35, had been set to stand trial on three counts of selling cocaine. All three alleged drug samples combined weighed under a half-gram, according to his attorney. Only one of the three samples was tested by Madden.
Bell’s case was dismissed just as a judge indicated this week she would consider releasing internal Police Department documents about the crime lab to Bell’s attorney on the grounds the evidence might be exculpatory for his client.
The documents reportedly include portions of about 1,500 pages of police documents related to the investigation of Madden and the crime lab, according to Buckelew.
“At this time, based on what the district attorney’s office knows about the issues with the narcotics division of the crime lab, we cannot ethically go forward with this prosecution,” Assistant District Attorney Nancy Tung told Judge Anne-Christine Massullo this morning.
Tung cited an “inherent tension” between the ongoing investigations of the crime lab and Madden, and her case.
Bell, who was out of custody, walked out of the courtroom with a smile.
Similar explanations were given for dropping the other 45 cases.
Following the hearings, Buckelew said his office is now reviewing all of its pending drug cases. He estimated the number at about 750.
“That’s a decision we’re going to make over the weekend,” Buckelew said. He said the reviews would include discussions with police and individual appraisals of each case.
“The driver here is clearly our assessment of the narcotics evidence in all of these trials,” Buckelew said.
Outside the courtroom, Bell’s attorney James Senal acknowledged he had not been able to review the documents but said they would likely eventually be disclosed, possibly in future criminal cases.
“Obviously there’s something there, and eventually it will come to light in some context,” Senal said.