Arizona Crime lab unreliable, charge 2 criminal defense lawyers
But manager and prosecutor say concerns are exaggerated
By Kim Smith
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson , Arizona | Published: 05.30.2007
Analysts at the Southern Regional Crime Laboratory on Tucson's South Side do their jobs in a converted aircraft parts warehouse so substandard it threatens the credibility of evidence processed there, two defense lawyers have charged.
The concerns raised by attorneys Michael Bloom and Joe St. Louis last week are based on a DVD video made by the Arizona Department of Public Safety last year to lobby for funding for a new $18 million lab, which has been approved.
Bloom and St. Louis want to use the video to challenge prosecution evidence in front of juries. The lab manager and lead county prosecutor say the concerns are exaggerations and distortions, and note the lab is still accredited.
In the video, an unidentified DPS narrator says "the facility's inadequacies became a substantial issue that could jeopardize laboratory accreditation in the future." The facility's accreditation is up for renewal next year.
"Loss of accreditation would be devastating in its impact on the lab and the acceptance of the scientific results in the courts," the spokeswoman says.
The video cites "evidence-integrity issues" resulting from extreme overcrowding, substandard ventilation and air conditioning systems, safety deficiencies and inefficient operational features.
For instance, it notes the air conditioning and ventilation system shortcomings result in "the buildup of toxic and noxious fumes throughout the laboratory and the evidence warehouse."
Further, it says, DPS employees analyze blood in a converted janitor's closet, write reports next to lab equipment and fingerprint cars outside.
They test-fire weapons outside, store explosive chemicals underneath wooden rafters, breathe noxious fumes and battle electrical issues.
Bloom and St. Louis accuse DPS officials and prosecutors of trying to keep conditions at the lab a secret because of fears about how jurors will react.
At a recent seminar they provided nearly 200 other defense attorneys with copies of the video and other documents, which they say should be usable to cast doubt on the validity of the lab analysts' work.
"The (DPS) has betrayed the trust of Pima County jurors who are routinely asked to decide the guilt or innocence of fellow citizens based upon sensitive evidence and scientific evidence," the attorneys said in a prepared statement. "This information should have been disclosed so that juries could fairly evaluate the evidence presented to them."
Rick Unklesbay, chief trial counsel for the Pima County Attorney's Office; and Ed Heller, the lab's regional manager, disagree.
While conditions at the lab are less than ideal, there is no evidence lab results are untrustworthy, Unklesbay and Heller said.
Moreover, the fact the lab is old and cramped is well-known by everyone in Pima County's criminal-justice system, said Unklesbay, who accused Bloom and St. Louis of using cheap defense tactics by twisting the facts used to persuade Legislators to approve a new $18 million lab.
In addition to the video, which includes an introduction by Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, criticism of the lab can be found in a 2002 study by the National Forensic Science Technology Center and a 2005 DPS needs assessment, both of which were presented to lawmakers.
"Nothing in that video shows any tests that have been contaminated or delayed because of these issues," Unklesbay said. "This is really poor behavior on their part. They are attempting to taint the jury pool in Pima County by saying the DPS lab can't be trusted when that just isn't true."
While the video does not say tests have been contaminated, the words "evidence-integrity issues," are emphasized in large type on the screen as the narrator speaks the words.
Not only does the DPS lab have numerous protocols and quality-control procedures in place, but it is a fully accredited lab, Heller said. Every five years, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board conducts site inspections to make sure the lab meets its high standards, Heller said.
The lab was last accredited in 2003, and documents show it exceeded the society's standards in each of the three grading areas.
"Citizens here in Southern Arizona can be assured the results we present are valid and accurate," Heller said.
Because analysts follow strict guidelines to limit the chances of contamination, the issues at the existing lab have more to do with health and safety concerns than with contamination, Heller said — concerns such as biohazardous materials being examined near offices, airborne fungus and pollen being spread by swamp coolers and vehicles being examined outside in the heat.
"When you're working on something with biological evidence on it, you don't want to reach for the telephone or grab a pen," Heller said.
People need to understand the equipment used by analysts is so sensitive, extraneous DNA profiles are going to end up on pieces of evidence or control samples, but that doesn't mean the evidence needs to be discarded, Heller said.
In cases where an analysts' DNA ended up on a piece of evidence, the tests are redone and the incident is well-documented and disclosed, Heller said.
The word "contamination" has such a negative connotation, but it doesn't need to, Heller said.
While you might not want to drink water that has been contaminated, you wouldn't throw out a murder weapon because an analysts' fingerprints ended up on it along with the suspect's, Heller said.
As for vehicles being examined outside, Heller said they can be brought inside if a storm threatens to wash away any fingerprints.
The complaints are a "slap in the face," Heller said.
"We don't care if the evidence points to guilty or it's exculpatory. We just document the results," he said. "Their allegations are just nonsense, and they're very upsetting to me. We just present the evidence, we don't skew it."
Now that he's been notified about the concerns, defense attorney Eric Larsen said he is obligated to pursue them for his clients.
From now on, Larsen said, he will request inspection documents and incident reports. He'll also ask for an independent review of every procedure done by the lab. The fact the lab is accredited means little to him, Larsen said.
"You don't get accredited every day, and my understanding is that they know when an accreditation team is coming in," Larsen said. "If you know a week in advance they're coming in, what do you think they're doing the week prior? They're getting ready."
It's just not possible for a lab as cramped as DPS' to maintain the level of efficiency, cleanliness and organization that is needed, Larsen said.
The state will ask for construction bids on the new lab in July and groundbreaking is scheduled for September, Heller said. The new lab will be on the same property, near Valencia Road and Tucson Boulevard.
● Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.