Former SF crime lab technician Debbie Madden to testify in murder trial 

The former San Francisco Police department criminalist whose alleged theft of drugs from the crime lab scandalized the department will be called soon to testify in a nearly 30-year-old murder case.

Debbie Madden appeared at a pretrial court hearing Wednesday in the case of Dwight Culton, 61, accused of killing 43-year-old Joan Baldwin at a former auto body shop near the Hall of Justice on April 6, 1984.

Madden, 61, will testify at Culton’s trial, with immunity from prosecution for any statements she might make about her recently scrutinized activities at the lab, her attorney Paul DeMeester said Thursday. He said this was the first nondrug case in which she had been called to testify since leaving the department in 2009.

Madden’s alleged admission that she took small amounts of cocaine from evidence at the lab in late 2009 could potentially be used by defense attorneys to impeach her credibility as a witness, even in a decades-old murder case.

DeMeester said the relatively recent accusations of Madden’s misconduct at the drug lab “have nothing to do with what she did on the case in 1984.”  

Madden was called to the scene of Baldwin’s murder to collect blood evidence and later did some of the testing.

“She is a material witness in this case, and her testimony is necessary for us to establish chain of custody,” District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Erica Derryck said.

Baldwin was found stabbed inside the former Earl Scheib paint shop at 555 Bryant St., where she worked and had been sleeping because she had been fighting with her boyfriend, according to police and prosecutors.

The boyfriend was cleared in the case, but Culton, who had previously been an assistant manager at the shop and was working at another Earl Scheib shop in Vallejo at the time of the killing, was arrested in November 2006 when a DNA hit linked him to the crime. Culton’s blood was allegedly found on Baldwin’s body.

Culton’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Bicka Barlow, said the forensics of the case were “very complicated” and there had been no witnesses to the crime.

Trial Judge Carol Yaggy ruled Wednesday there can be limited questioning about Madden’s recent activities at the lab — including her alleged theft admissions, whether she perjured herself in written declarations about the weights of drug evidence, and whether she had testified in court knowing the weights were false, according to Barlow.

The crime lab scandal led to the closure of the lab’s drug testing unit in early 2010 and the dismissal of about 700 cases byprosecutors.


Long road to a trial

  • April 6, 1984: Murder of Joan Baldwin
  • Nov. 21, 2006: Dwight Culton arrested for Baldwin’s murder after DNA hit
  • October-December 2009: Period in which Debbie Madden is allegedly stealing drugs from evidence
  • March 9, 2010: Then-police Chief George Gascón suspends drug testing at crime lab
  • March 10, 2010: DA begins dismissing drug cases, eventually totaling about 700
  • Dec. 2, 2010: Attorney General decides not to file criminal charges against Madden
  • April 11, 2011: Jury selection scheduled to begin in Culton murder trial

Source: SFPD, District Attorney’s Office

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