San Francisco’s public defender said today that the investigation into the Police Department’s crime lab should be entirely independent, after a police interrogation of the former criminalist at the center of the scandal was made public Tuesday.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi said that newly released transcripts of a Feb. 26 interview with 29-year veteran criminalist Deborah Madden showed the problems of the crime lab go “far beyond” her.
Madden, 60, has not yet been criminally charged in connection with the lab, but Police Chief George Gascon ordered testing at the lab temporarily halted on March 9. Evidence is now being tested at outside labs.
During Madden’s questioning by two police inspectors, a week before her retirement, she admitted to taking cocaine about five times from evidence she was testing at the lab between October and December 2009, but insisted she only removed small amounts that spilled during the process.
“I…if some fell on the counter or something and it was sitting there afterwards, I may have taken that,” Madden said. “But no, I didn’t go scoop it out of evidence.”
Madden said she started using cocaine in 2009 to try to control her drinking habit.
Police began retesting samples at the lab after learning in December that Madden’s sister had found cocaine at Madden’s San Mateo home.
In the interview, police confronted Madden with evidence that 11 of the 25 envelopes containing retested evidence “appeared to be suspicious, re-stapled, re-opened multiple times.”
Police had reweighed the evidence inside the envelopes, most of which had been Madden’s cases, and said they found significant weight discrepancies.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Madden said.
During the interview, the inspectors asked Madden for her help in coming to the truth, saying, “our Police Department is in huge trouble” and “we don’t want it to show up in the newspaper.”
Despite her admission to taking small quantities, Madden insisted problems with the weighing of drug evidence were routine throughout the lab.
“Well I’ve seen tons of times when we reanalysis someone else’s dope, the weights have been way off,” she said.
Asked why this had never been reported, Madden responded, “I don’t know we just kinda just laughed at it.”
Adachi today seized on this and other parts of the interview as evidence the crime lab’s problems go “far beyond” Madden.
“This is not about people getting out of jail free,” Adachi said.
“This is about the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
Adachi further claimed the Police Department was not capable of conducting a proper investigation of its own lab.
“They have a dog in this fight,” he said. He called the inspectors’ interview of Madden “one of the softest interviews I think I’ve ever seen.”
He said an independent investigator with “enforcement power” was needed.
Police are still conducting their own internal investigation, and the state attorney general’s office recently completed an audit of the lab’s drug unit that found significant problems, principally that the unit was overworked and understaffed.
The scandal has forced prosecutors to drop hundreds of drug cases, and Adachi’s office is now reviewing thousands of prior convictions “to determine whether or not we can seek any relief,” he said.