Police: Drug testing lab mishandles evidence

Public defender: At least 15 cases could be compromised
February 25, 2014
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is under investigation after police say someone tampered with drug evidence submitted for analysis. COURTESY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL SERVICES

Crime scene evidence sent to a state lab for testing was tampered with and stolen, a state police investigation shows.

To date, there are 15 known cases, most involving Oxycontin, said public defender Brendan O'Neill. One case involves marijuana, he said.

“It may be that there are more,” O'Neill said.

O'Neill said in some cases all of the evidence was taken, in others only some of it. It at least one instance, he said, blood pressure medication was substituted for oxycontin.

Delaware State Police had submitted the evidence so far identified as having been compromised.  Once other submitting police agencies audit all evidence sent to the lab for testing, he said, the number of cases involving tampering could increase.

O'Neill did not know how many cases involve public defenders, but a request for dismissal will be filed for all that do.

“It's not the defendants' fault that there's a problem with the drug testing lab,” he said.

Defense Attorney Joseph Hurley said tampering with samples is something that has been found in states with larger labs. It's surprising that it could happen in Delaware, he said. He estimated there are three people who do autopsies, three or four chemists who can sign off on reports and possibly about 20 employees overall in the lab.

“They may be looking around and wondering who did it,” he said.

Jill Fredel, spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, would not say how many people work in the lab or provide any other information because, she said, the office is under investigation by the Delaware State Police and Attorney General's Office. Sgt. Paul Shavack of the Delaware State Police said there are 53 employees with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; six are assigned to the Controlled Substances Lab.

Hurley said a defendant would probably still face drug charges, even if there were less evidence than what was originally sent to the lab for testing.

“If there are cases where the evidence is all gone, then there's a problem,” he said.

No one from Delaware State Police, the Attorney General's Office or the Office of Chief Medical Examiner would say whether anyone has been arrested or suspended from the Controlled Substances Lab, an office under the Chief Medical Examiner.

State Prosecutor Kathleen Jennings is leading the case, but neither she, Shavack nor Jason Miller of the Attorney General's Office would say when tampering likely began or where new drug evidence will now be sent.

“The Controlled Substances Lab has discontinued drug analysis,” Shavack said. “I have no information available at this time on whether or how drug testing will be completed in the immediate term.”

Delaware State Police announced Feb. 21 that the state's Controlled Substances Lab had been discontinued. A joint investigation by Delaware State Police and the Attorney General's Office began a month ago after drug evidence submitted for analysis to the lab was found to be missing or tampered with, Shavack said.

State police conducted internal audits of evidence lockers, which detected discrepancies amongst several Delaware law enforcement agencies involving drug evidence they submitted to the lab and evidence that was returned to police evidence lockers in sealed envelopes after analysis and testing, Shavack said.

In a press release issued Feb. 21, Jennings said the missing evidence was discovered in February during the trial stage of a Kent County criminal drug prosecution. Immediate steps were taken to examine the scope of the problem and additional measures have been taken to ensure the integrity of evidence in criminal drug prosecutions, she said.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is fully cooperating in the investigation, and all drug evidence has been secured, Shavack said. Although the Controlled Substances Lab has discontinued drug analysis, he said, all other functions of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner remain uninterrupted and fully functional.

Shavack declined to provide the value of any missing substances. He said no further information will be released to avoid jeopardizing police efforts by discussing investigative details.

Editor's note: An earlier headline on this story indicated police said evidence in 15 cases could be compromised. That information came from Public Defender Brendan O'Neill.

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