The scandal that has unfolded at the San Francisco Police Department crime lab is in its early stages, but issues at other facilities have proved costly in the long run.
Houston is paying out $5 million after a man spent 17 years in prison for rape charges that were overturned on faulty evidence.
Some problems that occurred in Houston are the same as those in San Francisco. That lab was underfunded and understaffed, and lab employees maintained close ties to police and prosecutors.
So far in San Francisco, there have been no cases made public where evidence from the crime lab was deliberately changed. There are no allegations that former crime lab technician Deborah Madden, then a crime lab technician, was planting evidence or that she added to the evidence to increase the weight of drug samples, Assistant District Attorney Brian Buckelew said.
“I’m not aware of one single case where a defendant is actually prejudiced by the problems in the crime lab,” Buckelew said.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi met with District Attorney Kamala Harris on Friday in an effort to list the thousands of cases in which Madden testified. Adachi estimates that number could reach 40,000, and one or two of those cases could lead to a lawsuit, he said.
“As far as these drug cases, it’s going to be someone in jail or prison who had an enhanced sentence, or who was falsely convicted, that will come forward with a lawsuit,” Adachi said. “So far, we haven’t found any of those cases.”
But learning of improprieties in a crime lab run by a police department is difficult, which is why city officials — including Adachi, Harris and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu — are now leaning toward an independent lab.
Other experts — such as William Thompson, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine who was part of a 2002 exposé on Houston’s crime lab — said the state should begin regulating crime labs.
Madden’s attorney, Paul DeMeester, also is a supporter of an independent lab. His client was critical of the caseload that criminalists were dealing with, a situation that proved to be a fertile atmosphere for theft.
“Crime labs should answer to science and not to law enforcement,” DeMeester said. “There may be all these pressures, overt and subtle, to say otherwise.”