Crime lab scandal prompts call for independent testing

April 23, 2010 6:14:29 PM PDT
The San Francisco district attorney's office is calling for major reforms in response to the scandal at the police department crime lab. District Attorney Kamala Harris answered questions about the evidence-tampering scandal for the first time in more than a month.

Harris's office has dropped about 500 cases so far because of this scandal. She calls what has happened in the crime lab "a violation of public trust." On Friday, she promised to do something about it.

Harris says she will be working with Police Chief George Gascon and Supervisors' President David Chiu to develop the independent drug testing program. Public Defender Jeff Adachi says that is something he has been demanding ever since the scandal broke.

"Why would you give more money to a lab that has proven themselves unreliable to do this job?" he asked. "So, I think the district attorney's call is the right one."

The state attorney general's office has also granted Harris's request to prosecute criminalist Deborah Madden if she is charged with stealing cocaine evidence from the lab. Harris says that will remove any stigma of conflict of interest.

"Members of my office may be called to testify in connection with any potential prosecution of that case," she said.

Adachi questions why the district attorney's office never told police brass about the memo from its top narcotics prosecutor Sharon Woo. She wrote on November 19th that madden had become increasingly 'undependable' for testifying in court, that she kept calling in sick.

Harris says the memo only revealed Madden's absenteeism and that it sent no other red flags. Two weeks later, Madden took a leave and ultimately retired in March without returning to work.

"There is nothing that leads me to believe that anyone in my office knew or had reason to know of any substance abuse or evidence-tampering issues on behalf of anyone in the police department at the time that that memo was issued," Harris said.

The district attorney's office did send the memo to police brass five days later, saying there was a shortage of lab drug technicians, but did not mention Madden's problems

Adachi believes that was a mistake.

"When the head of the narcotics unit tells you that your star witness is unreliable, that's a huge red flag. I mean, at that point, you say stop the traffic," he said.

It was not until a month later, in December, that police learned from Madden's sister that the criminalist had stolen cocaine evidence.

Harris also says she will ask the state legislature to pass a tougher law making it a felony for lab workers who tamper with evidence. Currently, it is only a misdemeanor.


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