Sunday, October 17, 2021
Oct. 17, 2021

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In Our View: Laboratory must restore trust of prosecutors, defendants, public

The Columbian
Published:

The delayed disclosure of problems at the Washington State Patrol Toxicology Laboratory has jeopardized past convictions and the integrity of the criminal justice system. The situation calls for an independent investigation.

The lab, in the Seattle area, performs tests that can help prosecutors compile evidence against accused criminals. That plays a role in impaired-driving cases, rape cases, suspicious deaths and other instances where microscopic evidence can make the difference between a conviction and an acquittal.

But recent revelations indicate the lab has been tainted with residue from methamphetamine. The Seattle Times reports: “Traces of the drug — linked to makeshift meth labs that scientists set up for training years earlier — have randomly emerged during drug testing since at least 2018, including in two new cases this year. But while lab officials acknowledge catching some cases — fewer than a dozen — with false positive results, officials deny the tox lab’s integrity has been tarnished.”

Experts feel differently. The Times quotes Janine Arvizu, a nationally recognized chemist and certified laboratory-quality auditor, as saying, “It puts every single sample that’s been processed by this laboratory at risk.” And Sandra Guerra Thompson of the University of Houston told The Washington Post: “As we move forward in an attempt to prevent scandals and wrongful convictions, policymakers should demand transparency by forensic labs.”

Such transparency has not been forthcoming from the State Patrol lab. The space previously had been used by a different unit to manufacture methamphetamine for research purposes. Later, the lab moved in, and administrators admit they did not test for contamination. They then kept the discovery of contamination secret for more than a year and have since downplayed the incident.

The lab has since moved out of the space in question and contracted to have the office cleaned. The Seattle Times reports: “The contractor found meth residue on the ceiling and walls, in air vents, on doors and the floor, including various samples exceeding the state’s limits for occupying a dwelling. Three swabs also tested positive for cocaine, a report shows.”

Since March, internal documents from the lab have helped at least three defendants beat charges of driving under the influence. All three had meth detected in their blood but denied using the drug, and a judge in one case referred to the situation as “gross governmental mismanagement.”

That mismanagement included a failure to inform prosecutors of the contamination. The Times reports that the issue was confirmed only through an “offhand comment” that a deputy prosecutor “heard at a social setting.”

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys then compiled a list of 3,832 cases with a test tied to the contaminated space and forwarded it to county prosecutors. Prosecutors are obligated to inform defendants of potentially exculpatory evidence.

The fallout from a series of failures could be time-consuming as defense lawyers and prosecutors reconsider cases. It also could be costly to the integrity of the criminal justice system. A situation that casts doubt on thousands of cases requires a full investigation and assurance that Washington adheres to the best practices of handling evidence in criminal cases.

Administrators say lab officials have received training about legal-disclosure obligations and that cleanup and monitoring are ongoing. That is a good start, but more is required to restore the trust of prosecutors, defendants and the public.

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