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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Timeline of Problems at the SFPD DNA Lab

Posted By on Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 4:45 PM

click to enlarge dna_testing.jpg

Through reporting over the past month, SF Weekly has uncovered multiple instances of scientifically and ethically questionable conduct by DNA analysts at the San Francisco Police Department Crime Laboratory.

Our findings focus on two lapses in particular: the destruction of records of a potentially critical mistake in the testing of DNA samples in 2008, and an analyst's misleading report and sworn testimony about DNA evidence in a homicide case. In both episodes, prolonged efforts to conceal analysts' misconduct were made by either crime lab officials or the office of District Attorney Kamala Harris, which presumably feared that disclosure of the problems would jeopardize cases relying on DNA evidence.

Here is a chronological rundown of what happened, and how the problems at the crime lab's DNA section came to light:

Sept. 2, 2007: Byron Smith, 32, is gunned down by men on bicycles in Visitacion Valley. Police suspect his murder is a strike in the turf war between gangs in the Sunnydale Projects.

Dec. 14, 2007: San Francisco Police Department Crime Lab analyst Cherisse Boland produces a report stating that the DNA of Emon Brown and Joc Wilson matches that found on the bicycles used by Smith's killers.

Jan. 31, 2008: Boland testifies under oath before a grand jury that goes on to indict Wilson and Brown for the murder of Smith. In both her testimony and report, she fails to mention that the majority of the DNA found on the bicycles belongs not to Brown or Wilson, but to a third, unknown male whom she never sought to identify.

Summer/Fall 2008: Crime Lab analyst Tahnee Nelson mixes up samples of DNA evidence, reportedly in a homicide case, during testing. In a serious breach of forensics protocol, DNA lab supervisor Matt Gabriel orders her to try to fix the switch by relabeling test tubes, rather than beginning the test over again. Records of the mistake are destroyed.

Nov. 3, 2008: Deputy Public Defender Bicka Barlow receives an anonymous whistleblower letter describing the sample switch, its concealment, and a precariously lax state of security at the crime lab. Barlow contacts the U.S. Attorney's office, which dispatches an FBI agent to obtain a copy of the letter.

July 30, 2009: The whistleblower writes another letter, this one to the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), repeating the allegations.

Aug. 4, 2009: ASCLD shares the whistleblower's complaints with SFPD Crime Lab Director Jim Mudge and asks for a response.

Aug. 28, 2009: Mudge states in a letter to ASCLD that he and Gabriel are not aware of the sample switch. He also denies allegations that lab security is poor.

Feb. 9, 2010: A jury acquits Brown and Wilson of all charges.

March 9, 2010: Police Chief George Gascon announces that all testing of narcotics evidence at the SFPD Crime Lab will be halted while investigators look into whether a lab technician, Debbie Madden, stole drugs for personal use.

March 2010: Mudge steps down as head of crime lab, but remains employed by the SFPD.

End of March, 2010: Rockne Harmon, a renowned prosecutor consulting on DNA evidence at the San Francisco District Attorney's office, issues an internal report criticizing Boland's presentation of evidence in the Brown/Wilson case. He recommends that DA Kamala Harris share the report with defense lawyers, who might use it as exculpatory material in future cases where Boland testifies. Harmon also submits his report to SFPD Assistant Chief Jeff Godown.

April 20, 2010: Defense lawyer Tony Tamburello writes a letter to Gascon complaining that Boland had behaved unethically in her testimony against Brown, his client, and that her behavior "might constitute criminal conduct warranting further investigation."

May 5, 2010: Gascon announces that the drug section of the Crime Lab will be closed permanently, and all forensic testing of narcotics evidence outsourced. During the same press conference, he announces that a California Department of Justice audit has found that the DNA section of the Crime Lab was "well-run."

DA Kamala Harris
  • DA Kamala Harris
May 17, 2010: In a scathing ruling, Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo says Harris' office has failed to comply with its constitutional obligations to seek out and turn over exculpatory evidence to criminal defendants in drug cases. Information about Madden's problems should have been disclosed to defense lawyers, Massullo rules. She orders Harris to develop a policy for turning over such information in the future.

June 1, 2010: Harris announces the creation of a new Trial Integrity Unit within her office to ensure that exculpatory information is turned over to criminal defendants.

June 8, 2010: Harris wins the Democratic primary in the California Attorney General's race.

June 2010: Gabriel departs from his job at the DNA lab for Applied Biosystems, a forensics-product firm in Foster City.

Sept. 11, 2010: ASCLD issues a report confirming that the DNA sample switch took place in 2008, and that records of the incident were destroyed.

Oct. 26, 2010: ASCLD re-accredits the SFPD Crime Lab for an additional five years.

Nov. 30, 2010: SF Weekly files a formal request under the Sunshine Ordinance for Harmon's report on Boland, who is now the DNA lab's supervisor. On the same day, Harris declares victory in the state Attorney General's race over Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, after a month of vote-counting in a race that was too close to call.

Dec. 1, 2010: In a letter responding to the request, Paul Henderson, Chief of Administration at the DA's office, denies that the office has a copy of Harmon's report.

Dec. 2, 2010: SF Weekly obtains a full copy of the ASCLD report confirming the DNA sample mix-up, and shares it with private defense lawyers and Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Upon viewing the report, Adachi calls for an independent investigation into whether the destruction of records by Nelson and Gabriel was a criminal act.

Dec. 3, 2010: SF Weekly publishes an online report detailing the sample switch and its subsequent concealment.

Dec. 9, 2010: In an interview with SF Weekly, Harmon reveals that he produced the report on Boland for the DA's office and says he is "concerned" that Harris has chosen not to disclose it or even acknowledge its existence. He declines to share the report himself, citing his past contractual obligations with the DA's office.

Dec. 10, 2010: Private defense lawyers David Wise and Doug Rappaport file motions to dismiss two rape cases, arguing their clients' constitutional rights were violated by the failure to disclose the sample switch.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Peter Jamison


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