Thousands of drug cases handled by a crime lab analyst could be in jeopardy after officials found weight discrepancies in drugs sent for analysis at the Central Valley Crime Lab in Ripon.
District attorneys from five counties — Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced, Tuolumne and Calaveras — that use the lab's services announced Thursday that an investigation has been launched by the state Justice Department.
Officials said lab management became aware of concerns about the handling and analysis of a methamphetamine evidence sample. After investigating and retesting, more meth samples handled by the same analyst showed lower weights than first reported.
The analyst, who was not identified, has been placed on paid administrative leave.
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State Justice Department spokesman Jim Finefrock said seven meth samples were analyzed and found to be "light" as compared to the original reports.
He said the investigation is aimed at determining whether the drugs were stolen or if the reports themselves were inaccurate.
"The question is why," Finefrock said.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said the investigation could affect as many as 4,000 drug cases dating to 2006. She pledged to begin notifying defendants and defense attorneys in cases involving evidence analyzed by the suspended lab employee.
Fladager said identifying affected cases would be a "full-time operation" that could take weeks.
"We all take that ethical obligation seriously," she said. "We're going to do the right thing on these cases."
Peter Stavrianoudakis, president of the Stanislaus County Criminal Bar Association, said an accurate report stating the type and amount of drug found on a defendant is a "basic requirement" of a drug case. He said the investigation could result in overturning such convictions, which can turn on drug evidence in amounts as small as hundredths of a gram.
"It could result in the dismissal of or the withdrawal of pleas in every case in which this criminalist was involved," Stavrianoudakis said. "If you don't have that test ... you don't have evidence of the substance."
The Ripon lab allegations are not the first to target a crime lab worker.
In San Francisco, a scandal continues to unfold over a 60-year-old technician accused of stealing cocaine evidence. There, hundreds of criminal cases have been dismissed and thousands more jeopardized.
A Houston man was awarded $5 million last year after spending 17 years in prison on rape charges overturned because of a discredited criminal lab.
Detroit shut down its crime lab in 2008 after outside auditors uncovered serious errors in the way evidence was handled.
Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk said one allegation of illegal or improper conduct can taint the credibility of the criminal justice system in the minds of the public.
"I'm very reluctant to think that all crime lab personnel ... are prone to misconduct," de Werk said. "The practical side of it is, (people) who aren't particularly supportive of our criminal justice system will be quick to say, 'Here's another example of how corrupt the system is.' I think that's really unfortunate."
De Werk said he spent a restless night after hearing about the Ripon allegations late Wednesday.
"The implications are absolutely horrific," he said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.