Stanislaus DA seeks to conceal analyst's identity in Ripon lab investigation

MODESTO -- Stanislaus County's district attorney said Wednesday she plans to seek judicial orders to keep under wraps the name of a Ripon lab analyst being investigated for tampering with drug evidence.

Birgit Fladager said her staff will ask to notify defense attorneys of the analyst's name, who is on paid leave, in the privacy of a judge's chamber during the court hearing. Then, prosecutors will seek a gag order prohibiting attorneys from discussing the case publicly, Fladager said.

About 550 Merced County drug cases may have been tainted by the crime lab analyst under investigation at the Ripon lab, according to Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II.

Fladager estimated 2,400 cases in Stanislaus County may have been tainted by the analyst, who has tested drug evidence at the Central Valley Crime Lab in Ripon since 2006. About 550 Merced County drug cases may have been tainted by the crime lab analyst at the Ripon lab, according to District Attorney Larry Morse II.

The breach also could affect hundreds of cases in Tuolumne, San Joaquin and Calaveras counties.

"He's got rights," Fladager said of the Ripon analyst. "Until (the name) is officially released, I don't think we've got good cause to go and release this in the event there's a mistake." She said the state Justice Department did not release the analyst's name, even to her office, citing personnel issues. But staffers were given information on all of the cases he was involved with, Fladager said.

Some local defense attorneys reacted with confusion as to why the name of the suspended technician was not being released openly to them.

"I find it unconscionable and a violation of due process that it's not public information when the public pays tax dollars for everybody involved," said defense attorney Mary Lynn Belsher.

Criminal defense attorney Frank Carson echoed Belsher's sentiments.

"Everything we do is supposed to be up front," Carson said.

In a letter to area attorneys dated Monday, Fladager said she would also fight defendants who seek to withdraw guilty pleas because of the drug lab investigation.

"Our position is that if they've entered a guilty plea, they're admitting guilt to it," Fladager said. "There's no reason to re-litigate any of this."

Victor A. Patton contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.