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Questionable results of drug tests

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Attorney Fran Watson worries that people have been wrongfully convicted in Indiana, and findings released from a court-appointed task force show that she may be justified in having that fear.

The Indiana Supreme Court recently issued the findings of a task force formed last fall to analyze how the state’s legal system might be impacted by potentially incorrect lab test results performed by the Indiana State Department of Toxicology. The court review was the latest in a continuing saga that came to light in early 2011, when problems were discovered with how toxicology samples were tested. There is the possibility that hundreds – or even thousands – of tests used in court could be unreliable.

An independent audit, conducted at the request of the Department of Toxicology and led by former Marion County prosecutor Scott Newman, showed 10 percent of marijuana tests and a third of cocaine tests conducted in
 

toxicology The Indiana State Department of Toxicology, housed inside the Forensic & Health Sciences Laboratories on 16th Street in Indianapolis, became a state agency in 2011 after questions arose about uncertain lab results. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

2007 through 2009 reported as positive were not conducted according to basic and widely accepted scientific standards. The paper-only audit involved reviewing technical and procedural documentation generated during the original testing process, not actually retesting samples.

The controversy prompted legislative changes that removed the Department of Toxicology from the control of Indiana University School of Medicine to a standalone state agency under executive branch control. The governor created an advisory panel to oversee the transition to state government and review the independent audit. That panel ordered a more comprehensive paper audit of about 10,000 samples dating from 2007 to 2009 and an actual retesting of some of those samples. The comprehensive audit was later postponed before alcohol tests could be reviewed.

Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard recognized the impact this could have on the legal system and created the court’s task force to determine how the Hoosier courts would respond.

The state’s toxicology department sent nearly 500 cases that were retested following the independent audit in 2011 to this court-appointed task force, led by Indiana Court of Appeals Judges Michael Barnes and Nancy Vaidik. Those samples were reported to police and prosecutors as positive.

In a two-page statement summarizing the court task force’s findings, the Supreme Court on Feb. 28 confirmed that the state’s Department of Toxicology provided incorrect or inconclusive test results for use in marijuana and cocaine criminal cases. The full extent of testing problems at the lab remains unknown, but the panel found at least five cases where retested samples “did not reveal any of the substances originally reported.”

The report detailed aggregate results but didn’t specify exact numbers for the remainder of the retests. The Department of Toxicology submitted 485 retest results from 450 actual cases for the task force’s review, and the findings show that a majority of those individuals had pleaded guilty. Eighteen of the total 450 individuals remain incarcerated. The report says that a review of the retests show the results fall into four categories: cases where the sample was inadequate for retesting, cases where retesting showed the presence of the substance at issue, cases where retesting showed the presence of a successor substance, and cases where the test didn’t reveal any of the substances originally reported.

Now, it’s up to the courts to determine whether the data from concluded cases was strong enough to support the convictions, and if not, what might be done to address that problem.

watson Watson

Watson, a Clinical Professor of Law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, said these toxicology lab questions come at a time when the courts and general public are becoming more aware that forensics aren’t always reliable evidence and faulty science has led to some wrongful convictions. She said in that context, it’s important to have more information to determine what happened on the Indiana cases where lab results may have been insufficient.

“This is very unspecific information,” Watson said about the Supreme Court’s statement and information about the task force findings. “The court seems to be trying to assure fairness and transparency, but we still don’t know what the issues are, how many cases were affected or if they’ve been addressed. If one’s concerned about a client-specific or institutional irregularity, you read this statement and are left with more questions than answers.”

Indiana Public Defender Council director Larry Landis agreed that the Supreme Court statement didn’t provide any answers as to how lawyers or litigants should move forward.

While this court review only looked at certain blood test results, Landis said it begs the question of how any defense attorney could ever accept any toxicology department lab result without challenging its validity.

“This is all very frustrating and every time I think about it, I get angry and just don’t understand,” he said. “We have thousands of cases where these results have been accepted as fact, and we know there’s a high error rate. Why would we accept them, and how do we know these issues have been fixed?”

The Department of Toxicology’s general counsel Teri Kendrick said new protocols have been put in place to ensure accuracy and make sure that past mistakes don’t reoccur. The agency has tightened security access to the refrigerator where samples are stored, adopted procedures documenting chain of custody, and now records when samples are received. The agency also records the procedures used and staff members who are involved in testing, and verifies that equipment and testing methods are accurate. Kendrick also said that the department has started using accepted practices to validate tests and use control samples to ensure results.

Kendrick said that whenever a retest happens, the data is sent to the county prosecutor no matter the result and those prosecutors then decide whether they have the legal or ethical duty to disclose that information to a defendant or defense counsel. She also has seen specific cases where that information has been shared by prosecutors.

landis-larry-mug Landis

“The issues have been addressed, and I hope that puts the defense bar at ease,” she said. “There’s not much we can do in looking back, but we’re trying to move on. I think the defense bar and prosecutors that work with us have confidence and do understand that things are moving forward.”

The Indiana Rules of Procedure for Post-Conviction Relief provide a way for individuals to challenge any toxicology lab test results that might be questionable. The State Public Defender’s office will represent those individuals who are still incarcerated for free, and the Court of Appeals has agreed to expedite these PCR-petition requests that allege faulty toxicology protocol. Any non-PCR case from individuals who might have already served their sentences would have to go through other avenues, such as civil rights actions.

The Office of the Indiana Attorney General will handle any appeals from PCR petitions – as it does with all other criminal appeals – fairly, quickly and without any undue delay, according to spokesman Bryan Corbin. He said the office is prepared for a possible influx that could occur, similar to the sentencing-related requests that came in following the United States Supreme Court’s Blakely decision in 2004.

“Every case is different so we can make no predictions,” he said. “Along with trial judges and prosecutors, we will carefully review each case presented to us to ensure that a just result is reached for both the defendant and the community.”•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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