State

Judge rules against gag order in case of Ripon lab worker

Prosecutors cannot conceal the name of a crime analyst who is the subject of a state investigation into whether he tampered with evidence at a Ripon lab, a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge ruled this week.

The analyst's name is Hermon Brown, according to four defense attorneys who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a potential gag order in cases related to the analyst.

Brown could not be reached for comment. A Sacramento phone number connected to him has been disconnected.

Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden told attorneys Thursday that she believed the name of the crime lab analyst should be public unless revealing it posed a "clear and present" threat to the state Justice Department's investigation or to the safety of the analyst.

"I can issue that (order) if (revealing the name) is going to impair the investigation," McFadden said. "Otherwise, I don't see I have that authority."

District Attorney Birgit Fladager said in a letter to county defense attorneys Monday that she would seek to keep Brown's name from going public until the state Justice Department officially released it.

She said prosecutors would ask to go into a judge's chambers to give the name to the defense attorney on the case, then seek a gag order to keep the attorney from disclosing it.

At least two Superior Court judges have issued gag orders at the prosecution's request.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said Friday that McFadden's decision may result in a change of policy, which she said was put in place to protect the district attorney's office from any legal liability.

"It may in fact take away the need to go in chambers any longer," Shipley said. "We just wanted to take every precaution."

Fladager said 2,400 cases in Stanislaus County may have been compromised by the analyst, who has tested drug evidence at the Ripon lab since 2006. The breach also could affect hundreds of cases in Merced County, along with others in Tuolumne, San Joaquin and Calaveras counties.

District attorneys from the five affected counties announced the state Justice Department probe April 22. Brown is one of five analysts who performed drug tests at the crime lab.

Seven methamphetamine samples handled by Brown weighed less than originally reported when they were retested.

Fladager said authorities have begun retesting all drug samples involving Brown.

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

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