Laboratory Rats

The criminal investigation, like many, started with a snitch and ended with a sting and a flurry of press.

Allison Lancaster had been accused of "dry labbing" by a fellow crime-lab technician in the San Francisco Police Department Laboratory -- that is, certifying that evidence samples contained illicit drugs, even though she hadn't analyzed them. The SFPD placed the five-year veteran under video surveillance and assessed her honesty by submitting test samples to her. The test confirmed the department's suspicions, and she was suspended without pay, making a wave of news in the Chronicle and Examiner.

Lancaster ultimately resigned and left the Bay Area. But as a recent independent investigation of the SFPD lab reveals, its problems were not solved by her departure. The 19-page report -- submitted June 5, 1995, by the universally respected American Society of Crime Lab Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) -- depicts the SFPD lab as a cramped, unsafe, and underfunded facility that routinely ignores the most basic forensic science procedures and practices, violating citizens' rights to a fair trial in the process.

It's a disorganized crime.
"There are deep problems in that lab," says George Ishii, retired director of the Washington State Patrol's Western Crime Laboratory, who has read the report. "Basic principles are being violated or ignored."

"It's a mess," concurs Robert Sager, retired director of the DEA's western regional lab, after reading the study. "Evidence handling is abominable. They're asking for theft. I'd be surprised it hasn't already happened."

The 3-month-old report is so closely held by the Police Department that the SFPD didn't share a copy of it with District Attorney Arlo Smith until he asked for it this week in response to this reporter's inquiry.

"I'm requesting a copy right now," says Smith, who had encouraged the Police Department to conduct such a study after l'affaire Lancaster. Smith adds that his being out of the loop indicates a "little problem of communication between this office and the Police Department."

Repeated calls to the SFPD press office requesting an interview with Chief of Police Anthony Ribera and Lab Director Shoji Horikoshi about the report were not returned.

If the report were a grade for Chem 101, it would be a D or an F -- or an incomplete. It casts intense doubts on the lab's ability to handle evidence competently, especially in the 9,000 drug cases examined by the lab each year, and calls into question the fairness of every drug prosecution that depends on SFPD lab results.

The inspectors found that essential crime-lab equipment was broken or unavailable. Facilities were dilapidated and antiquated. Chemicals used in forensic tests were of poor quality. No systematic paper trail was in place to track evidence as it wended its way through the lab, which means evidence was vulnerable to contamination and accidental substitution. Nor was evidence kept secure. And poor equipment and bad lab practices were putting the health and safety of technicians at risk.

The on-site evaluation of the SFPD lab by ASCLD/LAB inspectors was commissioned in November 1994 by the lab director in the wake of the Lancaster incident. Inspectors Susan H. Johns and Douglas M. Lucas reviewed the lab over the course of 2 1/2 days in May 1995, and the organization billed the SFPD $4,500 for the resulting "Review of Quality Assurance Procedures in the San Francisco Police Department Laboratory."

Although the document has been in police hands since June, the department has been as reluctant to share the findings with citizens as it has with the DA. Timothy Gillespie, director of the government watchdog group Public Access Project, began making formal requests for crime lab documents in early July. After Gillespie obtained the report from alternate sources, he continued to petition the city through official channels for the report in order to gauge Police Department compliance with the Sunshine Ordinance and the California Public Records Act. Only after several requests and telephone calls did the city release to Gillespie a redacted, or censored, version of the report on Sept. 11.

"It would be like a thermonuclear bomb if that lab was discredited," says Public Defender Jeff Brown. "Each piece of evidence would have to be tested by an outside lab. Not even the prosecution could trust it. The system would grind to a halt."

Following the Lancaster disclosures, Brown's office challenged en masse the 910 felony drug convictions in which Lancaster examined evidence over the course of several years. Last March, Superior Court Judge David Garcia threw out the filing, forcing the Public Defender's office to file individual writs of habeas corpus. Accordingly, Brown is contesting the Lancaster drug convictions one at a time.

"It's clear that the internal affairs division of the SFPD are well-aware of the taint of the crime lab," says Peter Keane, chief attorney with the Office of the Public Defender, who has been requesting all relevant information on the lab's workings. "The DA and the city attorney are fighting us tooth and nail for essential information to determine if our clients were lawfully convicted."

As bad as the report was, it could have been worse. George Ishii says that the May inspection -- a quality assurance review -- wasn't the ASCLD/LAB's most rigorous. Accreditation inspections are much more grueling.

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