Former Alaska crime lab analyst's thefts could taint other cases

Jerzy Shedlock
Jerzy Shedlock photo

Stephen Palmer made his first court appearance Friday at the Anchorage Correctional Complex courtroom. A grand jury has handed up charges to Alaska Superior Court against the 53-year-old, accusing him of stealing drug evidence and drugs used for testing at the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage while he worked there.

The former lab analyst, who worked at crime lab for nearly two decades, did not speak during the brief district court arraignment. He stood far behind the podium the jail’s inmates step up to when addressing a judge -- partially out of view of media cameras.

Palmer faces six felonies, including a scheme to defraud, second-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and four counts of tampering with physical evidence. He also faces four “official misconduct” misdemeanor charges.

Since a grand jury returned an indictment earlier Friday, there was no action for the district court judge to take. John Skidmore, chief of the state’s Department of Law, said Palmer is charged with a class A felony, so there’s “an appropriate no-bail hold.” Private attorney Gregory Parvin is representing Palmer. A Superior Court arraignment is set for Friday.

Potential collateral damage

Sitting in the courtroom was John Rogers, who in 2013 pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree controlled substance charge and violating conditions of release for a felony conviction. He said he was arrested two years earlier for the drug charge after a fender bender. Police searched his vehicle and found an empty prescription drug bottle, he said.

The state tested the residue in the bottle, and it came back positive for an opiate derivative, Rogers said.

His defense attorney requested an independent review of the residue, he said, and the test came back negative. But the state allegedly wouldn’t back down from its test results. Now he’s concerned about the validity of the test after hearing about Palmer’s alleged crimes. He spent about two years in jail before entering into the plea deal.

“It devastated my life,” Rogers said. “The time, money and resources it took to get out of jail.” He said he knows he’s not an angel -- he hasn’t made the most of his life -- but the possibility that he could have avoided jail, or the possibility of having the charge tossed, is why he’ll “following the case closely.” 

Tainted cases?

The charges against Palmer accuse the former forensic lab analyst of adding adulterants to reference standards in an attempt to cover up the theft of drugs, some of which were opiates. Reference standards are pure substances used in laboratories to establish a base of measurement for evaluating similar substances.

There's also the matter of missing drug evidence, which raises the possibility of tainted cases and may prompt requests for full discovery in a plethora of drug cases.

Skidmore said he is not concerned about the standards. Despite the added adulterants, he said, as long as they contain some of the controlled substance being tested, they’re still valid measurements.

“There’s no concern about those other than the fact that someone was doing something with them that they shouldn’t have been,” Skidmore said. “That’s obviously a concern but it didn’t invalidate -- from a scientific standpoint -- any of the testing.”

The larger dilemma, he said, is the missing drug evidence. Skidmore said if evidence of any sort goes missing as the result of conduct by someone who works with or in law enforcement, such a development is favorable to the defense due to presumption of innocence. Typically, a jury is told that the missing evidence would’ve been favorable to the party fighting criminal accusations.

For example, in drug and DUI cases, the defense has the right to conduct independent tests of seized evidence.

“The defense ought to have an opportunity to test something the state says is a controlled substance themselves, and if the evidence goes missing they’re unable to do that,” Skidmore said. “That’s a problem.”

The larger potential problem created by Palmer’s case is rather than just some missing evidence, all of it went missing. Skidmore said he’s doesn’t know if that issue exists yet.

'May have altered the evidence'

Public defenders statewide could have a field day with charges against the formerly state employed lab analyst who’s an alleged drug addict. The crime lab revelations may prolong any drug cases handed up while Palmer was working for the lab -- especially those involving his drugs of choice.

Alaska public defender Quinlan Steiner said the circumstances surrounding Palmer’s case troubles him --  particularly the former analyst’s “deception.”

“(Palmer’s alleged actions) may have altered the evidence of cases. We just don’t know,” Steiner said. “We have to take in all of the discoveries and take in what cases that could include.” The reexamination of evidence could include past cases, he said.

He said he and other public defenders will request full discovery from the Palmer case in an attempt to find out if it affects current cases as well.

However, Skidmore said that although defense attorneys will likely raise the issue in court, he’s unconcerned with current drug cases.

“It’s not about cases that are in the system right now, because by and large I would say in 99.9 percent of the cases, Palmer wouldn’t have had anything to do with them,” Skidmore said.

Skidmore said the Department of Law is compiling a list of the cases Palmer handled. He did not provide a total but said the number was significant.

Supreme Court bans drug tests on state workers

Despite Palmer’s and other crime lab employees’ regular contact with controlled substances, none are required to take a drug test when hired.

The same goes for all state employees, with the exception of some maritime highway employees and commercial driver's license holders. A 2001 Alaska Supreme Court opinion says state employees cannot be drug tested unless there is valid reason to believe they’re abusing substances.

Anchorage police employees and firefighters appealed a Supreme Court decision affirming the Municipality of Anchorage policy, adopted in 1994, of random drug testing for “employees in safety-sensitive positions.” They argued the policy was unconstitutional, and the Appeals Courts agreed.

The court decided “that the Municipality’s random drug testing provision violates the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizures.”

Said Skidmore: “We’re now squarely dealing with that ruling.”

The charges against Palmer detail years of alleged drug abuse, including daily use of meth and heroin. The abuse occurred when he was employed as a crime lab analyst.

Palmer testimony

During his time as a crime lab analyst, Palmer gave witness testimony during a drug-related case as well as a drunk driving and manslaughter case.

In the drug case, Palmer testified about pills possessed by defendant Neely C. Humpherville, who was charged with miscellaneous drug charges and breaking his probation conditions. Humpherville had pills that “‘were not pharmaceutical tablets. They were illicitly produced tablets.’ (Palmer) stated that he had seen such Bart Simpson-shaped pills before and that they were ‘generally the kind of rave pills that you would see, also known as Ecstasy,’” according to court documents.

Ecstasy contains MDMA, Palmer testified, but the tablets he’d tested for the state did not include it. Instead, the seized drugs contained ingredients not controlled by the state, the documents say. Still, the drug offers a high similar to MDMA, and based partly on that testimony, a grand jury indicted Humpherville, who was found guilty of a single third-degree miscellaneous charge. The state dismissed the remaining charges, according to online court records.

Palmer allegedly admitted to using MDMA in a letter his son provided to an Alaska State Trooper investigator.

In a different case involving Palmer, a Kotzebue jury in 2011 convicted Patrick Tickett of manslaughter, first-degree assault and drunk driving after he slammed his snowmachine into a doctor on an icy lake outside the Western Alaska community.

According to court records, Palmer calculated what Tickett’s blood-alcohol content “might have been” before the defendant’s blood was drawn several hours after the fatal crash.