Tainted DNA adds to SFPD's crime lab issues 

As the San Francisco Police Department was investigating the disappearance of cocaine from its crime lab last year, other problems were surfacing that may be part of the wide-reaching audit currently under way.
Two tainted DNA samples were revealed in late 2009, around the same time that police began an investigation into Deborah Madden, a criminalist who allegedly skimmed cocaine from evidence. In an e-mail from Assistant District Attorney Braden Woods, who heads the office’s cold-case unit, it was revealed that the control sample for two DNA samples contained the DNA of the lab technicians themselves.

In December, Deputy Public Defender Bicka Barlow, a former geneticist, went to Superior Court Judge Charles Haines for the documents in the two cases because the lab would not provide them. The judge has since granted the request, she said.

“It kills their credibility,” Barlow said of the crime lab after the corrupted samples were discovered. “When they discover the corruption, they don’t do anything about it.”

Now, the state attorney general and an accrediting body will not only be auditing the drug-testing lab but will be looking at the entire lab itself, which has been plagued by underfunding and low staffing for more than a decade. Police Chief George Gascón ordered the audits after he learned one of the lab techs was suspected of taking cocaine from the lab.

By Friday, more than 200 cases had been dismissed or discharged since the closure of the drug-testing portion of the crime lab, according to the District Attorney’s Office. Gascón also announced a shake-up in leadership at the crime lab.

Madden, a 60-year-old civilian criminalist, took a leave of absence Dec. 8 after a crime lab audit revealed drug evidence was missing. She has not been charged with anything regarding the crime lab cocaine samples.

The Madden case is not the first time a crime lab has dealt with improprieties, according to William C. Thompson, professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine.

Thompson has written dozens of papers on crime lab evidence, and he was part of a 2002 exposé on Houston’s crime lab. That review unearthed hundreds of cases of sloppiness, inadequate training and outright bias on the part of a crime lab.

“It is not an uncommon thing, and it really highlights the need for transparency and a statewide regulatory body,” Thompson said.

Currently, crime labs across the nation are accredited through the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, a nonprofit organization of experienced crime lab workers that inspects facilities.  

When contacted by The Examiner in December, the society’s director, Ralph Keaton, said it would not release its audit of the SFPD crime lab that was completed in November. In January, police rejected an Examiner public records request for the audit.

The audit was finally released this month after allegations about Madden surfaced. The audit noted the San Francisco crime lab lacks proper chains of evidence custody, has poor record keeping and a lack of cleanliness.


Drug bust

The Police Department’s crime lab was shut down this month after a lab technician was alleged to have tampered with drug samples.

2 DNA samples tainted at crime lab
6 Cocaine samples tainted at crime lab
6,000 Approximate felony drug cases in Superior Court per year
48 Hours before trial that evidence must be submitted
March 1 Date crime lab technician Deborah Madden retired
29 Years Madden had been with Police Department

Sources: District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Police Department

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Brent Begin

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