AP file photoIndictment: Former Police Department criminalist Deborah Madden is expected to plead not guilty today to one felony count of acquiring a controlled substance.

Evidence takes spotlight in feds' case against ex-crime lab tech

Two years after former Police Department criminalist Deborah Madden threw local narcotics prosecutions into upheaval by admitting to skimming drugs from evidence, federal prosecutors are waging the criminal case the state declined to pursue.

Madden, 61, was indicted by a grand jury Thursday on one felony count of “acquiring a controlled substance by misrepresentation, fraud, forgery, deception or subterfuge.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in federal prison.

Madden is expected to plead not guilty at her arraignment today.

At issue is whether investigators have a “corpus,” actual physical evidence of stolen drugs, upon which to prosecute. Madden has claimed she only took small amounts of cocaine that spilled during testing. She pleaded no contest in June to drug possession charges after police found 0.09 grams of cocaine at her San Mateo home.

Her attorney, Paul DeMeester, asserts that there never was any physical evidence found at the crime lab. He said police found a powdery substance in her desk and sent it out to be tested, but it was prescription medication.

“Someone in the federal government wants to pursue this, but I don’t know why,” DeMeester said.

He said federal prosecutors are dredging up an “obscure” federal statute to prosecute his client. “A criminalist in a lab who just opens an evidence bag and analyzes drugs — they haven’t been fraudulently obtained,” DeMeester said.

A U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman declined to comment.

“You can’t convict someone just on their confession alone,” said former prosecutor Jim Hammer, who is unaffiliated with the case. But, he added, “It wouldn’t be hard to test the cocaine found in her residence and to attempt to match it from the crime lab. And that could easily satisfy the ‘corpus’ requirement.”

Former District Attorney Kamala Harris turned the investigation over to the state Attorney General’s Office in April 2010. The office later announced it would not file charges, citing insufficient evidence.

aburack@sfexaminer.com

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