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550 Merced drug cases could be tainted in lab probe

About 550 Merced County drug cases may have been tainted by a crime lab analyst under investigation for tampering with methamphetamine evidence at the Central Valley Crime Lab in Ripon, District Attorney Larry Morse II said Friday.

"Some we'll undoubtedly have to dump," Morse said. "We certainly don't want any tainted convictions. If there's even a hint of skepticism of how legitimate a conviction is, we're going to undo it."

In Stanislaus County, about 2,400 cases are affected, District Attorney Birgit Fladager said.

They include more than just meth cases, but also charges and convictions going four years back for prescription drugs, marijuana, cocaine and other illegal substances.

Court clerks will spend the weekend pulling the files. Staffers then will send letters to defense attorneys whose cases involved the analyst under investigation.

"It's certainly something you wish would never happen," Fladager said. "But it feels better now that we can take action." Stanislaus County is one of five counties, including Merced, San Joaquin, Calaveras and Tuolumne, that use the Central Valley Crime Lab in Ripon.

Morse said a cursory review found 550 county cases handled by the suspended lab employee.

"Some we'll undoubtedly have to dump," Morse said. "We certainly don't want any tainted convictions. If there's even a hint of skepticism of how legitimate a conviction is, we're going to undo it."

A spokesman at the San Joaquin County district attorney's office did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

The technician, one of five people who perform drug analysis at the Ripon facility, is on paid leave pending the results of a state Justice Department probe announced Thursday. Each analyst handles about 2,000 testing requests a year.

Seven methamphetamine samples handled by the analyst, who has not been identified, weighed less than originally reported. Officials have not said whether they suspect the staffer of stealing the drugs or inflating numbers on the reports.

John Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, said the allegations cast a pall over the integrity of the entire Ripon lab unless officials can narrow the scope of any possible impropriety.

"It's all a field day for the defense," Myers said. "If I'm a defense attorney, I'm going to say, 'My guy had baking soda.' And because your procedures are inadequate, how do we know? There are a million possibilities of things that could have gone wrong."

In 2005, the Ripon facility faced scrutiny after a staffer misidentified a diet supplement taken from a Lodi man as methamphetamine.

"They were kind of on the radar after that," said Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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