SACRAMENTO — In a time of trouble for some California crime labs, a state panel that oversees the scientific investigators who can make or break a court case convened this month and voted itself out of existence.
The June 3 decision to disband the California Crime Lab Task Force came as scandal and controversy dog the forensic side of the state's criminal justice system from one hot spot to the next.
Matters such as missing drugs and crooked criminalists have threatened thousands of cases in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced and San Francisco counties. Shaky testimony from a purported DNA expert in Sacramento County, meanwhile, put its crime lab under scrutiny.
"I think this means that things will just continue the way they've been," said David Lynch, a Sacramento assistant public defender who was on the task force and opposed the decision to shut it down.
California lawmakers created the 17-member task force in 2007 on a combined 118-0 vote in the Assembly and state Senate. Made up of crime lab directors, defense lawyers, prosecutors, police and sheriff's officials, and academic experts, the panel was charged with reviewing the state of forensics in California and reporting back to the Legislature on how to improve the investigative world of the white coats.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, who's reviewing cases compromised because of mishaps at a Ripon lab, said she hadn't had any contact with the task force and couldn't comment on the recent disbanding.
Task force Chairman Dane Gillette said the disbanding may only be temporary, and that the panel can review its termination decision as soon as next year. Besides, Gillette said, the group has accomplished its principal task by putting out a report last year that contained 41 recommendations to improve forensic justice. Among them: adjust crime lab pay, improve training and increase staffing.
Gillette, a deputy state attorney general, said the impetus to cancel the task force came from the panel's lab directors, who contend their own accreditation group provides sufficient oversight. The association of front-line criminalists who analyze DNA, drug samples, fingerprints and the like also pushed for the shutdown, according to Gillette.
With the federal government working to fix forensic cracks nationwide, Gillette said, the state panel's major- ity opted to put itself on hold until Washington makes its move.
The decision to disband has come under attack from the defense lawyers who sit on the task force. They say the panel was shelved before it could act on its final recommendation to the Legislature under the 2007 mandate: report back on the creation of a statewide forensic oversight body.
"They suspended it because, in my personal opinion, they do not want an oversight body," said Lynch, the Sacramento assistant public defender. "The people who voted to suspend the proceedings are essentially crime lab directors, and they are of the opinion that 'we regulate ourselves just fine.' "
A crime lab scandal blew up this year in a Ripon facility that serves San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Nearly 3,000 criminal cases are under review as a result of an investigation into a analyst at the lab who handled methamphetamine samples that wound up weighing less than originally reported, according to the state Department of Justice.
The criminalist resigned and "the investigation is ongoing," DOJ spokeswoman Christine Gasparac said.
But the San Francisco crime lab cases have generated the most heat.
In one instance, authorities are investigating a supervising criminalist on suspicion of stealing drugs. It turns out that same criminalist, Deborah Madden, has a criminal record that San Francisco prosecutors never disclosed to defense lawyers. That omission has forced the district attorney's office to dismiss hundreds of cases.
More recently, criminalists bogged down by a backlog of DNA samples in San Francisco never analyzed blood from an April homicide in which police have now named Anthony Alvarez as a suspect. Alvarez, 26, remained free until Sacramento County sheriff's deputies tried to arrest him for other crimes June 9. Alvarez took a child hostage and forced a 56-hour standoff before deputies killed him June 11.