Gascon admits 'mistake' in crime lab probe 

San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon today admitted the department "made a mistake" by not disclosing the prior criminal history of a former crime lab employee being investigated for stealing drug evidence, but insisted that should not force scores of court cases to be tossed out.

The revelation that the former civilian lab supervisor, 60-year-old Deborah Madden, may have taken small amounts of powdered cocaine from evidence containers resulted in Gascon's order earlier this week to temporarily cease drug testing at the lab.

Madden was convicted in San Mateo County in 2008 of misdemeanor domestic violence, but Gascon -- who was hired last year -- admitted at a news conference this afternoon that the department never told prosecutors or defense attorneys.

"We made a mistake," Gascon said. "We had a system failure and we failed to disclose." He called it "a technical violation" and added that it would be "grossly overstating the case" to say that would be cause to overturn "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of prior drug cases.

That was a reference to statements Public Defender Jeff Adachi made to reporters Wednesday suggesting there was cause to overturn those cases. Adachi noted that Madden may have directly or indirectly handled "hundreds, if not thousands" of prior cases, as well as testified in many cases. He said defense attorneys are required to be notified if a witness has a prior criminal conviction.
   
Gascon did not mention Adachi by name.
   
"Those cases that were prosecuted had every legal basis to move through the criminal justice system," Gascon insisted. "We must not lose sight of the fact that these convictions were based on a thorough forensic analysis and were constitutionally sound."
   
"There was no fabrication of evidence; no one was framed for crimes they did not commit, and the misconduct was limited to a small number of powder cocaine cases," Gascon said.
   
According to Gascon, Madden admitted the alleged taking of evidence began in October 2009. "We don't know if that's true or not," he acknowledged.
   
Madden took a leave from the department on Dec. 8 and officially retired on March 1.
   
According to Gascon, he became aware of the missing drugs in late February. Police delivered a search warrant to her San Mateo home on March 3, and found a gun and "what appeared to be coke," he said.
   
Madden was arrested by San Mateo County authorities because, with a prior conviction, she was prohibited from possessing a firearm. She has not yet been charged in connection with the crime lab investigation.
   
The temporary cessation of drug testing at the San Francisco crime lab has forced prosecutors to abandon dozens of new and existing cases and release many arrested for drug sales or possession back onto the streets.
   
"They have not gotten off the hook," Gascon said today. "We're not giving up."
  
Both Gascon and the district attorney's office have emphasized that some of the cases would be re-filed after the alleged drug evidence is tested at labs in neighboring counties.
   
Gascon also said the department would continue buy-bust undercover operations in the Tenderloin. Buy-bust arrests constitute the majority of drug cases brought by San Francisco prosecutors.
   
"Our commitment to the community is as strong as ever," Gascon said.
   
Gascon said he hoped to have narcotics testing at the San Francisco crime lab resume "in the near future," pending an audit by the department and by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. He said the audit is expected to take several weeks.
   
Attorney General Jerry Brown today agreed to a request by Gascon to help retest evidence and improve "internal administrative controls."
  
"It's critical that we act immediately to get the San Francisco crime lab back in service and restore the public's trust in our criminal justice system," Brown said in a prepared statement.

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