Minnesota Office of the Public Defender
Simple curiosity on behalf of your client can pay great dividends.
That’s the lesson Christine Funk and Lauri Traub learned as they slowly uncovered lapses in testing protocol and procedures at the St. Paul Crime Lab last year.
The attorneys challenged the result of numerous drug cases in Dakota County District Court. Testimony by lab staff revealed a lack of training and documentation of evidence handling and testing procedures. The scandal led to the lab being closed.
The origin for the two attorneys’ takedown of the crime lab lies partly in Funk’s background in DNA evidence, a subject she’s trained numerous public defenders in over the years. Part of that training is the importance of making sure attorneys establish a reliable paper trail on behalf of their clients.
“One thing Christine preaches is to get the underlying file, not just the paper that says ‘Yes, it’s your client’s DNA,’ ” said Traub. “I sent a letter to the crime lab requesting one of my client’s files. When we asked one of the analysts if we could speak to her, she said she had never had a defense attorney down there.”
As the two looked through crime lab files last spring, they were surprised at the lack of even minimal documentation. Even worse, essential procedures weren’t being followed: One criminalist in the lab told them that the lab didn’t run a solvent through an instrument after every test of suspected drugs, a process intended to prevent contamination.
“They didn’t seem to have anything in writing,” said Traub. “They didn’t seem to keep track of important things, or have written standard operating procedures. We were there for about an hour, and when we got out to the parking lot, we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my.’ We thought the science would be good.”
Funk, whose undergraduate degree is in social work, said the key to gaining a sufficient working knowledge of DNA and lab forensics was partly self-education and partly seeking training opportunities.
“Since 2006, the state public defender’s office has had a trial team that handles cases with complex litigation or forensic science issues,” she said. “They’ve made sure we have access to training and information about forensic science. When hearings come up, I now have connections in the scientific community.”
“We had the full support of our offices and colleagues as we did this,” said Traub. “That helped a lot.”
The crime lab controversy has made Funk and Traub celebrities among their public defender colleagues, who tend to have an uphill battle before them when defending clients. Funk said the overall lessons from their experience are simple and valuable.
“One, get the file,” said Funk. “Two, talk to the analyst before the trial. Make sure you understand what’s in the file, make sure you have the whole file.”