San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris today recommended a series of reforms in response to the evidence-tampering scandal in the Police Department’s crime lab.
“There has been a failure in the crime lab that has resulted in essentially a devastating violation of the public trust,” Harris said at an afternoon news conference in her office.
“We need to restore that confidence immediately,” she said.
Among the reform measures, Harris called for an independent drug testing program in San Francisco, saying it is “untenable and unacceptable” for her office to have to dismiss hundreds of drug cases.
Harris said her office is working with police Chief George Gascon and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu on the proposal.
On March 9, Gascon ordered drug testing at the lab temporarily halted. He said he learned in late February of the allegations against Deborah Madden, a former civilian criminalist at the lab accused of taking small quantities of cocaine from evidence last year.
Since then, prosecutors have dismissed about 550 drug cases.
“It is my hope and intention that we will not have to dismiss any more,” Harris said.
Prosecutors are weighing whether they can re-file charges on some of the dismissed cases, district attorney’s office spokesman Brian Buckelew said.
Evidence is now being sent to outside labs for testing.
A separate audit by the state attorney general’s office last month found a number of problems in the lab’s drug unit, including sloppy working conditions, issues with the chain of custody of drug evidence, and lab staff overburdened with massive caseloads.
Harris today called for “a lab that is outside of the Police Department that would be testing the narcotics.”
She said the details of such an operation are still be worked out, taking into account the timing of when such an operation could get under way and the money that would be required.
Gascon today confirmed discussions have been taking place, but said a decision had not been made on whether completely independent drug testing would be the best option.
“We’re basically looking at all the possibilities,” Gascon said, including independent testing, having testing remain completely under the authority of the Police Department, or a hybrid model.
“We haven’t committed to any one model yet,” he said.
Referring to Harris’ call for independent testing, Gascon said, “From my end, we’re not ready to say that yet, because we just don’t know if that would work for us well.”
“Just simply going outside is not a panacea,” he said. “We want to make sure that whatever model we embrace is going to avoid making the mistakes that we made in the past, and just simply contracting out doesn’t necessarily take away those mistakes,” he said.
Gascon said the city controller’s office has been analyzing the various models, and that he hopes to be able to make his recommendations to Mayor Gavin Newsom by mid-May.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi has previously called for the entire crime lab to be independently run.
He said he was not surprised by Harris’ remarks today.
“I think the district attorney realized that it made no sense to continue the drug testing through the Police Department,” Adachi said.
However, he added, “These concerns run deeper than just the drug lab…the entire operation of the crime lab, including DNA, needs to be reviewed.”
Harris also today said her office has asked the attorney general’s office to take over the investigation into Madden, who has not yet been criminally charged in connection with the crime lab.
Madden, 60, does currently face a separate cocaine possession charge in San Mateo County, where she lives.
Madden went on leave from the Police Department in December and retired March 1.
Harris said members of her office would be called to testify in any criminal prosecution of Madden, and she did not want to impede the prosecution or create any “advantage” for the defense.
Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jerry Brown, confirmed today that the attorney general’s office has joined the Police Department’s investigation of Madden and will handle any potential prosecution.
No decision has yet been made on whether Madden will be charged, Gasparac said.
Harris further said her office has now drafted a written policy regarding the disclosure of potentially exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys, specifically with regard to the criminal backgrounds of witnesses.
Madden’s 2008 conviction for misdemeanor domestic violence was never disclosed to defense attorneys representing clients accused of drug crimes. Madden was called as a witness in hundreds of cases during her 29-year career, according to the district attorney’s office.
Prosecutors said they were never told by the Police Department of Madden’s conviction, which defense attorneys could have used to challenge the drug evidence. However, technically, the burden is on the district attorney’s office to run a background check on all the witnesses it intends to call.
Harris said her office is now one of “very few” statewide that would have a written policy on this.
Finally, Harris said she is working with state legislators to craft new legislation allowing evidence tampering by civilian law enforcement employees, currently a misdemeanor, to be potentially prosecuted as a felony.
“The crime lab needs to be fixed, once and for all,” Harris said.
Results of a separate audit of the crime lab’s DNA unit performed this month by the attorney general’s office are expected early next week, according to Gascon, who said he will release that report publicly.