Lab staff's status debated

Crime technicians' lack of certification causes dropped cases

April 05, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Three drug cases were thrown out of court in the past month because judges refused to allow the testimony of city police crime-lab employees who are not yet certified.

Another six drug cases were dropped during the same period because the analysts performing the tests failed to appear in court to testify, said Baltimore City Public Defender Elizabeth L. Julian.

That three cases were tossed amid questions about certification angers lab Director Edgar Koch, who insists his employees are qualified to test substances and determine whether they are heroin, cocaine or other controlled dangerous substances.

He also said that allowing trainees to test drugs is standard procedure.

As for the other dismissed cases, he said the analysts probably did not show up because "they were not summonsed and didn't know to be there."

Koch criticized the public defender's office for raising the certification issue, calling it an easy way to help clients beat conviction.

"To use this as a way of getting people off who have done something wrong, is wrong," Koch said yesterday.

"If they want our analysts to come testify, they can," he said. "We're not hiding anything, and we're not to there to mislead anybody."

Julian countered that her office used "legal means. ... We just try to follow the law and seek justice for our clients."

Koch acknowledged that the form signed by analysts can be deceiving because it says they are certified by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"You can say it's a misleading statement on the form, but ... we know what our findings are, and we know what the qualifications of our chemists are," he said.

Said Julian: "If somebody is signing a paper saying they're certified, then they should be certified."

The issue came to a head this week during the trial of Pamela Anne Volpe, who prosecutors said was found slumped in a car by police Jan. 18 in the 3300 block of Waterview Ave. in South Baltimore.

Volpe, 39, had a syringe in her arm, and officers testified they recovered several vials and gel caps from the car.

Those items later tested positive for cocaine and heroin, Assistant State's Attorney Marshall Shure said.

Routine procedure

Volpe's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Stephen Patrick Beatty, argued in court that the person who initially signed the lab results in Volpe's case was Heidi L. Wojno, an uncertified trainee. Stephen Thomas, a criminalist in the lab who was certified in 1977, signed under her name.

Thomas testified Wednesday that he routinely signs his name to thousands of lab results -- without having performed the tests or supervised the people conducting them.

District Court Judge Charlotte Cooksey said she found Volpe innocent of possession, because one of the officers who handled the drugs did not appear in court -- not because of Wojno's lack of certification.

In fact, the judge allowed Wojno to testify as an expert witness during Volpe's trial.

Judge urges remedy

However, after announcing her not-guilty ruling, Cooksey told Shure that the problem with the forms needs to be rectified immediately.

"What corrective actions does the office of the state's attorney plan to take with regard to this document?" Cooksey asked Shure.

Shure replied that he has spoken with Deputy State's Attorney Sharon A.H. May about the problem.

Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said the issue about the forms and certification will be discussed Tuesday when police officials and the state's attorney's office meet to discuss policy issues.

Burns said no cases have been thrown out because of the issue that surfaced during the Volpe case.

Issue emerged last month

Burns said the issue of analysts' qualifications arose early last month, and at that time the state's attorney's office, along with police, established a protocol that requires analysts to take their resumes and other credentials to court.

Julian said the public defender's office will continue challenging the qualification of uncertified analysts.

Koch said Wojno and three other employees have been in training for 16 months and will be certified in two months.

In defense of trainees

"These people have gone to college, gotten their degrees, and we're bringing them in here showing them how to do drug analysis," Koch said. "How can you get them training unless they analyze the drugs and testify in court as experts?"

He said his office handles 45,000 cases annually, requiring that 400,000 items be tested.

By comparison, he said, the rest of the state handles about 20,000 cases per year.

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