40,000 Calif. drug cases could face review due to scandal
The case of a crime lab technician suspected of stealing cocaine booked as evidence may force reviews
By John Wildermuth and Nanette Asimov
The San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — As many as 40,000 San Francisco drug cases handled by Deborah Madden, the former police laboratory technician suspected of stealing cocaine booked as evidence, may need to be reviewed and it’s going to take money to do it, Public Defender Jeff Adachi told a Board of Supervisors’ committee Monday.
“We’re being deluged with calls from people in prison, asking us to review their cases,” Adachi said after a morning-long hearing on the police crime-lab scandal. He already has asked the mayor’s office for money to hire two more people to help deal with the load.
“There’s a substantial amount of work that needs to be done,” Adachi said.
The 40,000 cases is a matter of simple math, the public defender added: Madden was questioned about 4 grams of cocaine missing from evidence she handled in 2005, so every case she handled since then should be suspect.
Conflict of interest?
Adachi also slammed the conduct of both the police and the district attorney’s office, arguing that neither agency can fairly investigate Madden when her job for 29 years was to help police and prosecutors.
They have a vested interest in minimizing her criminal involvement so that fewer drug cases get tossed out, Adachi said.
“Why should the district attorney be in charge of prosecuting one of their star witnesses?” Adachi asked after the hearing. “She testified every day for them in court. They were in the business of bolstering her credibility.”
He also complained that the police were dragging their feet by refusing to file charges against Madden quickly.
“I’ve never seen a stronger case,” Adachi said.
Back off, Gascón says
Police Chief George Gascón rejected any suggestion that his department should pass the Madden case to the state Department of Justice or another agency.
“It’s putting the cart before the horse” to say the San Francisco Police Department shouldn’t be investigating the matter, the chief said at a news conference.
“I was brought in to fix this Police Department,” said Gascón, who took over as chief in July. “It was understood that it needed to be reformed, and that I was the one to do it. ... We have been very transparent. Until someone proves that I am not transparent, they need to back off.”
Madden allegedly told investigators she began taking cocaine from the crime lab in October. She took a leave from her job in December, just weeks before lab supervisors discovered that cocaine was missing from evidence she had handled. She retired March 1.
Drug testing at the lab was stopped last month in the wake of a police investigation into the lab and its operation.
‘This lab is a mess’
“There is no doubt this lab is a mess. ... I know there are issues in the lab,” said Assistant Chief Jeff Godown, whom Gascón has tapped to run the investigation into what went wrong with the lab and come up with solutions. “It’s a daunting task, but it will be taken care of.”
Concerns about the police lab’s performance already have forced the district attorney’s office to dismiss more than 500 drug cases, although some may be refiled, Chief Assistant District Attorney Russ Giuntini told the supervisors’ public safety committee. But no one knows how many cases ultimately will be affected.
“We don’t know where the bottom is,” he said. “There’s no computerized run to show every case Ms. Madden was involved in.”
Money is a concern
If the district attorney’s office has to comb through years of files to determine what evidence Madden touched, it’s going to be a long, expensive process, he added.
Costs are going to be a concern, especially in a city already strapped for cash. Both Adachi and Giuntini said more people will be needed to handle the work, and Godown said the police lab already is trying to hire five more technicians.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who had called for the hearing, wasn’t surprised that it produced more questions than answers.
“I didn’t expect a lot of absolutes,” he said. “But now we have made clear our need to get to the bottom of how this whole fiasco unfolded.”
Copyright 2010 San Francisco Chronicle