Review of crime lab drug testing spurs criminal probe, Alaska officials say

Casey Grove
The State of Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.
Bill Roth
John Skidmore is director of the Criminal Division of the State of Alaska Department of Law.
Erik Hill

Alaska authorities are conducting a review of the state crime lab's handling of drug samples that includes a criminal investigation by Alaska State Troopers.

According to the Department of Public Safety, staff at the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage have discovered problems with the lab's control samples of six illegal drugs: morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, opium, codeine, and amphetamine. The "irregularities," as the department called them in a statement Wednesday, involve foreign matter found in the lab's "controlled substance reference standards."

The reference standards are the pure form of drugs laboratory analysts use to compare to suspected drugs seized by law enforcement as evidence in criminal cases, said John Skidmore, chief of the Department of Law's Criminal Division. The standards are also used to train new analysts on how to conduct drug testing, Skidmore said.

State officials are not saying whether they think a lab employee or anyone else stole drugs from the control samples and replaced them with something to cover up the theft. But defense attorneys said Wednesday's announcement could put current drug prosecutions and past convictions in question.

The crime lab staff discovered the foreign material when they started using more sensitive equipment than they had previously, Skidmore said. It is unclear precisely when the staff started using the new equipment, an instrument called a gas chromatograph, or when they first became aware of the problems, he said.

Orin Dym, the lab's manager, said the chromatograph can determine the composition of a suspected drug, giving a detailed reading of each chemical a sample contains. An analyst can then match their results to either a verified sample of the drug they have in the lab -- "It's a known you can go to and look and say, 'What is this?'" Dym said -- or they can compare the sample with archived test results called "libraries" that tell them the drug's known composition, he said.

"We're pretty much exclusively using libraries," Dym said.

But, he said, "you have to have something to train people with."

At the new lab, they keep the pure drugs locked in rooms accessible by electronic key card and under video surveillance, Dym said. Only certain people are issued the keys, and the lab keeps records of who accesses the rooms, he said.

"Reference standard control has been an evolving process in crime labs," Dym said. "In the new crime lab, there is great security. That was one of the things the new crime lab brought, was the ability to have that."

"The old lab did not have that kind of security capability," he said.

The move to the new lab happened in June 2012, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. The staff were in the new facility and using the newer chromatograph after that, Skidmore said.

Because crime lab analysts know what a particular drug's chemical signature looks like, based on the archives of past tests, it is not always necessary to compare a suspected drug to a known sample on hand, Skidmore said.

"The fact that there is a foreign matter in their known reference standards is of concern," he said. "However, that concern does not extend to this now means that any testing that was done is called into question."

Still, the Department of Law has notified Alaska defense attorneys of the review and investigation, Skidmore said. Five drug cases currently in court -- four scheduled for changes of plea and one about to go to trial -- were put on hold Monday while state officials looked into the crime lab problems, but all of those were set to go forward by Wednesday, Skidmore said.

The notice, obtained by the Daily News, told the defense attorneys that the Department of Law did not find evidence that would clear their clients.

Skidmore said he did not think the crime lab issues had hurt those drug prosecutions or others, nor did the irregularities undermine the testing in general, he said.

"I don't believe that it has, but we certainly have disclosed this information to defense counsel, and they, on behalf of their clients, have the right to look at certain information, to test this theory in court through expert witnesses or other means of litigation, and that may occur," Skidmore said. "I don't know. That's up to the defense counsel."

"Do I think that there will be more work for our prosecutors as a result of this? Sure. I do," he said. "But that's the way life goes."

Anchorage defense attorneys James Christie and John Cashion both said Wednesday that it was too early to say if they or other lawyers would attack the prosecution of their clients on the basis that the crime lab might have made mistakes in drug tests.

The fear, Christie said, is that a foreign substance was present in the control drug samples and that potential evidence tested positive by matching that foreign substance, not actual drugs.

Christie said the Department of Law was likely downplaying the issue. The burden would be on defense attorneys to figure out if there were errors in their clients' convictions or ongoing cases, he said.

"Certainly one of the concerns whenever you have irregularities at a crime lab is how many prior convictions were potentially obtained if there were problems with their testing procedures?" Christie said. "I can tell you from prior experience that the Department of Law will take every step they have available to sort of minimize the scope of the impact that this revelation will have."

Christie said he would be surprised if the number of cases affected was not higher than the five temporarily suspended this week.

"I think we need more information," he said. "This could potentially affect, not only the cases that are currently set for trial this week and next week, but they could go back and involve dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of prior cases."

Cashion, an attorney on one of the drug cases put on hold, agreed that there could be a broader impact, though the full effect was yet to be seen. It could go beyond just drug cases, he said.

"My experience with issues of this nature is that the full story leaks its way out over time, and I don't think we're there yet," Cashion said. "It's far more than just drug prosecutions that travel through the crime lab, and any type of impropriety at the crime lab, even if it's being highlighted in the context of a controlled substance issue, doesn't mean that it's limited to just the handling of controlled substances."

According to the Department of Public Safety, the review currently under way involves a criminal investigation and an audit of the lab's methods. Skidmore, with the Department of Law, said there have been no charges or arrests.

Ipsen, the troopers spokeswoman, would not discuss the investigation by her agency.

The investigators are focused on figuring out how the foreign matter was introduced to the lab's control samples, when and why it happened, and who did it, Skidmore said. He refused to say what the foreign matter was or if anyone working at the lab has been suspended or fired as a result. An internal audit at the lab is ongoing, Skidmore said.

"They are seeing if there are any other irregularities with any of (the samples) to essentially determine the scope of the issue that they have," he said. "I can tell you that steps have been taken to ensure the integrity of the crime lab and to ensure that any issues presented don't occur again."

Asked if the investigation also aimed to determine if someone took drugs out of the control samples, Skidmore said yes.

"That's certainly something that's being looked at."

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