The District Attorney’s Office was aware of problems at the San Francisco Police Department drug lab — including issues with former technician Deborah Madden — months before it was revealed to the public and even before the police chief was apprised of the situation.
Former lab worker Madden has admitted to taking trace amounts of cocaine from evidence samples in the crime lab. Police Chief George Gascón shuttered the controlled-substance testing unit of the lab March 9 after he was briefed on the investigation.
Since then, hundreds of drug cases have either been dismissed or discharged — meaning they were never brought to a court.
Documents obtained by The Examiner — which are part of a court proceeding related to drug issues — show that the District Attorney’s Office knew of issues at the lab and problems with Madden.
“The situation at the crime lab is becoming ridiculous,” Assistant District Attorney Sharon Woo wrote in a November letter to Russ Giuntini, the second-highest-ranking attorney, and Jeffrey Ross, head of the criminal division in District Attorney Kamala Harris’ office.
Prosecutors had only three criminalists in the controlled substance testing unit of the crime to work with, Woo wrote. Madden, who has admitted to taking trace amounts of cocaine from evidence samples in the crime lab, was becoming a liability.
“Debbie Madden has become increasingly UNDEPENDABLE for testimony,” Woo wrote, explaining that the 29-year veteran of the crime lab had called in sick without any warning, forcing prosecutors to call a retired lab tech to testify in a case.
“The problem with Debbie Madden does not appear to be isolated … but I wanted to get this information to you as soon as possible,” Woo wrote. “Anecdotally, I was told that Debbie is unhappy with the lab and strategically picks days and times to be sick which have the greatest impacts on lab work.”
Giuntini did forward a memo to Assistant police Chief Kevin Cashman on Nov. 24 saying there was a shortage of analysts at the lab, impeding the District Attorney’s Office from trying cases. The memo, however, does not mention Madden.
The e-mail casts serious doubt on what Harris knew about the growing scandal and when.
“This e-mail clearly shows that the district attorney, at the very least her second-in-command, knew that there were serious problems,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.
But the District Attorney’s Office said the e-mail does exactly the opposite. The memo only shows that Madden was calling in sick and that she was so erratic in her attendance that she compromised cases, Assistant District Attorney Brian Buckelew said.
But it doesn’t show that the DA’s Office knew anything about her alleged malfeasance.
“People are seeing this as the smoking gun, but the smoking gun of what?” Buckelew said. “It’s a smoking gun that we didn’t know what she was doing.”
Timeline of controversy
How the incidents centered around Police Department crime lab technician Deborah Madden unfolded:
Nov. 19: District Attorney’s Office complains of shortstaffing in crime lab and Madden routinely calling in sick
December: Deputy public defender asks a Superior Court judge for documents related to DNA evidence in two cases since crime lab won’t provide them; judge grants request
Dec. 8: Madden takes leave of absence
Feb. 22: Criminal investigation begins
Feb. 23: Police meet with District Attorney’s Office to inform them of investigation
Feb. 26: Two Police Department inspectors interview Madden
March 1: Madden officially retires
March 3: San Francisco police serve search warrant on Madden’s San Mateo home and find handgun and what appears to be cocaine
March 9: Police Chief George Gascón shuts down crime lab
March 11: Gascón admits SFPD “made a mistake” by not disclosing Madden’s criminal history; she was convicted in 2008 of misdemeanor domestic violence
March 23: Superior Court judge begins reviewing hundreds of pages of documents related to crime lab
March 30: Independent audit on crime lab says it’s understaffed, overworked and has lax security
Tuesday: Judge orders hundreds of pages of documents to be released to public, including transcripts of Feb. 26 interview