Broward Crime Lab Scandal Could Taint Many Cases
Mon., Aug. 4, 2014 @ 7:28 pm
By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Kadesha Roberts was camped out at a friend's condo in a cookie-cutter, tile-roofed development off McNab Road when the knock came. The short Jamaican woman with spiked hair opened the door to find a UPS man clutching a large package. After identifying herself, she grabbed it.
Then all hell broke loose.
Broward deputies bolted toward her. Roberts dropped the package and tried to squeeze inside, but not fast enough. Cops snatched up the box, discovering bales of marijuana wrapped in green cellophane. Roberts was put in cuffs and the evidence shipped off to the county's crime lab.
That was July 2010, and normally the story would have ended there. Roberts would have been popped for trafficking and the UPS box would have been the prime evidence against her.
But the case wasn't a slam dunk. Several pounds of the marijuana apparently vanished. And it's possible that drugs disappeared in dozens of similar cases. Roberts' bust was only one piece of a scandal that could shake South Florida law enforcement to its core.
Though the broad outlines of the scandal at the Broward crime lab have been made public — two top staff members have resigned, and an internal affairs investigation is underway — New Times has learned it is likely more far-reaching than previously thought. An audit expected later this year is likely to show that drugs are missing in many more cases.
After reviewing hundreds of pages of court documents and police reports, the newspaper has found problems in everything from street-level drug busts to large-scale probes of heavy movers. Among them are Roberts' case and several others, including:
• The bust of a dealer with 363 pills that were field-tested as positive for MDMA in 2012, only to come up negative in the lab.
• A $60,000 Fort Lauderdale reverse sting conducted in 2012 in which cocaine was later found to be missing.
• The 2013 seizure, after a SWAT standoff, of marijuana that was listed at a different weight in police reports and lab analysis.
The common factor: All the drugs landed on the desk of forensic chemist Kelli McDonald. She is still employed at the Broward Sheriff's Office but was recently transferred and could not be reached for comment. Her last known annual salary was $85,800 in 2012. "There seem to be multiple manners in which she has engaged in misconduct," says Gordon Weekes, a chief assistant with the Broward Public Defender's Office. "It creates an issue because it erodes the confidence of the entire criminal justice system."
The Broward lab hired its first chemist to do drug testing in the late 1960s. During the '70s, the county established six laboratories that were funded in part by the state. Today, there are five units — chemistry, DNA, evidence intake, latent print, and firearms — and a $4.7 million annual budget. But the workload is considerable for the lab's 37-person staff, especially considering demographics. According to a 2010 presentation, Broward's drug unit has one analyst for every 319,925 county residents. In Palm Beach County, each analyst serves 253,290 residents; in Miami Dade, the ratio is one to 238,717.
There is a serious danger in overworking crime lab staff. Recent history has shown that the more law enforcement relies on science for convictions, the more vulnerable the system becomes to bad acts by the folks in lab coats.
In November 2013, Annie Dookhan, a tech at a Massachusetts State Police drug lab, was sentenced to three to five years in prison for falsifying reports and lying to investigators. According to the Boston Globe, more than 40,000 cases the tech touched between 2003 and 2012 were thrown into doubt by the scandal, and by the time of Dookhan's sentencing, the state had spent $8.5 million reviewing those cases.
The State of Florida is currently reviewing thousands of cases worked by technician Joseph Graves. In February, the former Florida Department of Law Enforcement employee was arrested for allegedly switching out the prescription pain pills he tested at a Pensacola crime laboratory with over-the-counter substitutes. Since he was hired in 2005, Graves had worked more than 2,600 cases for FDLE involving 35 counties across the state.
McDonald was hired at the Broward Sheriff's lab in 2006 after spending three years as a tech for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. She had earned a bachelor's degree in forensic science from the University of Central Florida in 2000 and a master's degree in biomedical science from Florida Atlantic University in 2005. In her first five years in Broward, McDonald received positive marks in her reviews and glowing responses from colleagues. She has analyzed drugs in about 5,900 cases from 2006 to this past February, when she was suspended.
But in February 2012, 0.4 grams of crack cocaine — about the weight of a pencil eraser — went missing from the lab. The material was part of a case McDonald was working, and the tech was the last person to have signed the material out of the property vault. McDonald denied any knowledge of the missing drugs. Lab staff thoroughly searched her workstation and the vault but couldn't find a trace of the absent evidence.
The case of the missing crack was referred to the Broward Sheriff's Division of Internal Affairs. Investigators couldn't turn up an explanation. As the last person to handle the material, McDonald was found to have failed to meet BSO standards. The internal-affairs case was closed in October 2012; McDonald was given the recommended discipline of "counseling and policy review" — neither of which she received, according to her own statements in a later deposition.
Broward Crime Lab Scandal Could Taint Many Cases
Mon., Aug. 4, 2014 @ 7:28 pm
Quote from a previous comment here:
"Many suspected MDMA tablets or capsules actually turn out to contain something else these days."
Here is another example of suspected MDMA actually turning out to be something else after a field test that is positive for MDMA.
Note that ecstasy is another name for MDMA.
Case 2:08-cr-20621-JAC-RSW Document 78 Filed 03/06/10
"According to the Government, Beckley recruited his cousin, Shantell Johnson, and her friend, Albany Cooper,6 to travel to Canada where they were instructed to pick up approximately five thousand (5,000) ecstasy pills, and smuggle them into the United States."
"A field test of the pills by a border patrol officer produced a positive result for ecstasy."
"On November 25, 2008, Beckley was officially accused by a grand jury of violating 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1); namely, conspiring with other persons to distribute MDMA. However, with an apparent recognition that a subsequent analysis of the confiscated “ecstasy” pills by the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) revealed that they actually contained a combination of other chemicals (i.e., BZP, TFMPP, and caffeine), the Government subsequently filed a superseding indictment in which Beckley was accused of having conspired with other persons to distribute BZP."
Note that Joseph P Bono is mentioned in the above link.
He is also mentioned in the sun-sentinel article:
"Crime lab chemist's cases under review after missing-drug allegation"
"Broward Sheriff's Office hired Joseph P. Bono, a Virginia consultant, at $200 an hour, to meet crime lab personnel, review procedures and begin an audit"
March 5, 2014|By Linda Trischitta, Sun Sentinel
There was a case where a long-time employee took small amounts of cocaine out of cases.
"SFPD Crime Lab Tech Pleads Guilty To Misdemeanor In Drug Case"
"Madden told police investigators in a 2010 interview that she took small amounts of cocaine to try to control an alcoholism problem."
March 15, 2013
It is unlikely that Deborah Madden of SFPD ever took the entire item of evidence, as that would require explanation.
She could instead take a portion of a larger case.
On the same SFPD case, there is a New York Times article with more commentary on the reliability of field test kits.
"In Scandal’s Wake, Police Turn to Quick, Cheap Test for Drugs"
By SHOSHANA WALTER
Published: August 27, 2010
Note that a photo of Deborah Madden's work area included with the article shows dropper bottles used for screening tests in the lab. Crime labs use these for screening tests instead of field test kits.
EXCERPTS FROM NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE:
"Presumptive tests have been standard practice for decades at police departments across the country, including ones in Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. But critics are concerned that the San Francisco police may be moving from one scandal to another. The city’s public defender’s office says the tests could lead to false arrests because some legal substances are known to yield a positive result for illegal narcotics."
"In addition, with set time limits to complete the test and myriad ways to interpret the colors, experts say field-testing can be difficult to perform, especially under the often-stressful conditions of police work. The department has issued a seven-page manual to help officers with the portable kits."
“Like with everything we saw with the debacle in the crime lab, things are subject to human error,” said Teresa Caffese, chief attorney for the public defender’s office. “Are we creating the potential for other injustices?”
"Chief George Gascon shuttered the drug-analysis section of the lab and introduced presumptive testing in the hope that it would sharply reduce the number of cases sent out for lab work. Since more than 90 percent of drug cases in San Francisco are resolved with plea agreements or dropped charges, officials reasoned, they would need fewer lab tests, which prosecutors rely on in a jury trial to prove cases beyond a reasonable doubt."
"But forensics experts say too many other substances — Tylenol PM, for example — can test positive for illegal drugs like cocaine."
"But the police say the tests are merely another piece of evidence that allows officers to establish probable cause and make an arrest."
“You’re not conducting a jury trial when you put them in handcuffs,” Sgt. J. D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said.
"Defense lawyers, however, still struggle with the fact that officers are testing the evidence in most of the cases that go to court."
“Why can’t we have a world-class crime lab with technicians, chemists who are trained to do this work?” Ms. Caffese said. “People can be impacted. People can be falsely arrested.
So it all started with the loss of an item "the size of a small marble", a single item in one case missing in action, 0.4 grams of cocaine.
"Crack missing from BSO crime lab ignites dispute, call to review cases"
June 14, 2013 By Megan O'Matz, Sun Sentinel
So how could the item have been lost?
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein admits to no possibility of human error. According to Mr. Finkelstein, either the item was taken by someone in the lab, "or the Tooth Fairy came and took it".
Human error can turn up in a NASA planetary probe careening off course (Mars Climate Orbiter), a nuclear power plant run amok (Three Mile Island), a deep sea drilling blowout (Deepwater Horizon), a plane crash involving the most experienced pilots of the highest rank (Tenerife airport disaster), or the shape of a telescope mirror (Hubble Space Telescope). It is also why so many people who play with explosives are missing fingers.
Could an item be lost from a crime lab through human error? Mr. Finkelstein's knowledge and imagination admits to no such possibility. Most crime labs have tours. Could a delivery man, intern, tour group member, or janitor grab something? Few crime labs have a separate corridor with windows for viewing of the lab by a tour group, allowing no access to the lab or anything in it. A small item dropped on the floor could be swept up by a janitor. An item could be put in with a different case and returned to a different agency. But according to Mr. Finkelstein, crime labs are staffed by super-humans who never make a mistake. If something remains unexplained, the Tooth Fairy is invoked. Typical lawyer-speak. Sounds like something that would go in a closing statement to the jury. It is less appropriate when used by a public official to impugn the reputation of someone who has not even been charged with any crime. Mr. Finkelstein accords his own often troubled clients every presumption of innocence. But he is not so generous when dealing with a trained, experienced, and highly educated employee of the crime lab.
The lack of a bar-coding system at the Broward County Crime Lab would also seem to make it easier to lose an item. Most crime labs, especially accredited ones, already have this. Despite requesting bids on such a system in 2003, the lab is apparently still without such a system, as reported in 2013. Maybe they decided to buy more police cruisers instead that year. A crime lab placed under police management can get short shrift.
"Crack missing from BSO crime lab ignites dispute, call to review cases"
June 14, 2013 By Megan O'Matz, Sun Sentinel
"The lab, which is located in the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, undergoes regular internal audits and outside accreditation and is moving to a bar code system to scan evidence in and out. It has also added additional security cameras, Marcus said."
How about Mr. Finkelstein's own Public Defenders Office? Do mistakes ever happen there? As recently as last month two public defenders were fired due to controversial comments that were posted on their facebook accounts. The comments were also "liked" on Facebook. One of the defenders claims that he did not make the comment, but instead made the mistake of somehow allowing someone to hack his account.
"Public defenders fired for anti-Arab postings"
July 8, 2014 By Brittany Wallman and Rafael Olmeda, Sun Sentinel
Could Sherlock Holmes solve the case of the missing 0.4 grams of cocaine? Kelli McDonald would be the first name to come up since it was her case. But would she take it knowing she would get the blame? Or would Sherlock look elsewhere for a suspect, possibly allowing for human error even among these super-scientists?
About the 2010 marijuana case:
The Kadesha Roberts marijuana case is old news. The reporter had to go back 4 years, all the way to 2010, to dig up an example to put on a list of cases with suspected drug weight discrepancies.
It is actually so common for the weight listed by the agency to differ from that found by the crime lab that it usually does not even draw comment.
The police agency will virtually always weigh the drug evidence WITH the packaging material.
The crime lab will weigh the drug evidence WITHOUT the packaging material.
Occasionally the crime lab will get a call from a new prosecutor who asks about the weight difference and these issues are explained to the prosecutor and that is the end of it.
The crime lab report had 2.9 less pounds of marijuana then the weight given by the police.
Assuming that the agency weight of "approximately 31 pounds" is accurate, then 2.9 / 31 x 100 = 9.4%.
This is consistent with the expected weight of the packaging material.
Further, the reporter claims that the prosecution's case against Kadesha fell apart due to a weight difference, and that the charge had to be reduced from distribution to possession in a plea deal. In fact charges are often reduced in plea deals. That is why it is called a deal! Prosecutors would not keep up with cases if they took every case to trial.
It seems likely that the weight was not even an issue in this old case. Rather, the reporter seized on this issue. The reporter is reporting on matters that are outside his area of expertise.
Felony trafficking might be a reach anyway. The marijuana was seized by the police as it was being delivered to the defendant. Kadesha hardly had any chance to try to sell it.
The reporter is not an experienced 'crime beat' reporter or he would know stuff like this. On his own he has jumped to conclusions after looking through some old records.
This reporter is working hard to dredge up any fact that he can mold into a sensationalized story that fits his preconceived notion that this person is guilty and that will sully the reputation of this talented forensic scientist.
Not only is this person highly educated, she is an adjunct professor.
Did you even go to journalism school Kyle?
Kyle should remember that he is not doing a story on Fort Knox. Unlike gold, the weight of marijuana and other drugs can be EXPECTED to change. Marijuana will be packaged IN something. Plea deals ARE made.
Taken with the MDMA "pills" this article reads like a hack job.
This story first appeared in the news almost 6 months ago on March 4, 2014.
"Exclusive: Weight Discrepancy Involving Cocaine In BSO’s Evidence Room"
In cases where crime lab employees actually did take evidence or drugs, there is usually some kind of supporting evidence that has turned up after 6 months of investigating.
Is this the best example the reporter can find after trying for almost 6 months and after reviewing "hundreds of pages of court documents and police reports"?
Others also are eager to jump on the bandwagon and thoughtlessly parrot this story, such as the Washington Post blogger Radley Balko.
Radley admits that he is not familiar with the facts of this story, yet he goes on to blog about it anyway:
"At one point, I was trying to keep a running tab of all these crime lab and forensics scandals. It quickly became clear that doing so while also covering other stories just wasn’t possible."
A real investigative reporter might have thought to ask some of these questions.
In all of your investigating Kyle did you look for any evidence that Kelli might be innocent?
Didn't think so. You know what that's called? BIAS.
A follow up on the previous comment about the Huntsville Alabama appeals case where a man was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, due to prior felony convictions, for possession of crack cocaine based on the result of an officer's field test.
The backlog of about 30,000 drug cases in Alabama crime labs may have something to do with this.
Perhaps the agencies involved were desperate to get results into court.
February 17, 2014
"Budget-cutting of vital departments has created an Alabama nightmare"
"The crisis in Alabama’s courts caused by a 30,000-case backlog of drug cases is frustrating, potentially dangerous and, we note with sadness, completely predictable."
February 15, 2014
"Local judge worries about Constitutional violations due to forensic backlogs"
There is also an appeals case from Tennessee involving an officer's testimony about the result of a field test kit for cocaine where the conviction was affirmed.
STATE OF TENNESSEE v. WILLIAM COLE COMER
Note that Alabama and Tennessee have a common border.
In both the Alabama and Tennessee cases there was no test done by the crime lab.
But this is rare since field test kits are not considered reliable enough for this purpose in most jurisdictions.
In a previous comment here, there is info about weight loss of marijuana over time.
Another news organization, miami.cbslocal.com, quotes Broward Sheriff Office as planning a study on weight loss of cocaine over time.
In a story titled:
Weight Discrepancy Involving Cocaine In BSO’s Evidence Room
"They said they have contracted with a lab to analyze the possibility the weight of the cocaine may have changed over time."
I know of no such published study for cocaine as has been done for marijuana.
Note that quality control in illicit drugs is not guaranteed and in fact is usually absent.
Could the cocaine lose weight by drying out? It could take time to do if you have to put cocaine on a shelf and wait a year or two or three to see if it dries out. You need multiple kilo bricks of cocaine since manufacturing methods and techniques will vary for illicit drugs. Another idea is to dry it in an oven to see how much water or other solvents can be driven off. Should these questions be answered before Kelli is accused of negligence, incompetence, or an actual crime?
I have heard of other drugs at crime labs losing weight due to evaporation. There was a case of methamphetamine that lost about 10% of its weight after years of storage. It could have had solvents present, and also methamphetamine itself can evaporate. Note that no accusation was made that the crime lab employee took methamphetamine out of the case! If a wet item is put on a balance, it is possible to watch the weight go down before your very eyes as the item dries out.
In the article here are cases where the weight of cocaine:
Dropped 0.64% from the original 930.7 grams
Dropped 1.41% from the original 1,012.6 grams
In the case of the missing 0.4 grams of cocaine, someone else could have taken it, or it could have been dropped on the floor and swept up by janitors. In the case tested by the defense, someone else also had access to the evidence. Since weights can change, should the weight have been checked again by Broward before sending out of the lab?
The standards a crime lab employee must meet are very high. How many pharmacists would still be in business after 10 years if the first time they dropped and lost one tablet they got canned?
Here is another question. Has a selection of cases from any other randomly selected employee been checked to see if there are any weight differences? Could this be a common occurrence due to drying of evidence? How many would welcome such a test after seeing what Kelli is going through?
Note also that every time evidence is weighed and tested, the weight can go down due to using up the sample in testing, and residue can be left on the weighing container that does not go back in the original container. When a tightly sealed, such as shrink wrapped, package is opened then an item could dry out faster.
It can be an advantage for a crime lab employee to work at an agency that has random drug testing. It is evidence that the employee is not on drugs. There is no mention here whether Broward has such a program. But according to:
"She was drug tested six months after that investigation began and no illicit drugs were found, the report said."
This browardpalmbeach article seems prejudicial. There is almost an assumption of guilt on the part of Kelli. It is implied that Kelli took drugs from evidence. Other possibilities, such as the drugs dried out, are not mentioned.
Although there is no actual proof of any wrongdoing whatsoever on Kelli's part, she is compared to the infamous Annie Dookhan of Massachusetts. The newspaper has worked to research this case. It reviewed "hundreds of pages of court documents and police reports", and found what? What did the newspaper find? It found small weight discrepancies in a few cases which could be due to drying of the evidence.
Kelli has been given a desk job, and two lab employees (Dr. James Ongley, and Randy Hilliard) resigned over this when told it was that or be fired. The Broward County Sheriff does not have the backs of his employees at the crime lab. For the resignations see story below.
Manager and analyst at Broward crime lab resign
Finally, Kelli seems like a bright kid. Look at the educational and career path that she has followed, and the good reviews she got at Broward ("In her first five years in Broward, McDonald received positive marks in her reviews and glowing responses from colleagues"). If she were so smart, and if she took cocaine out of a kilo, then why wouldn't she record the weight after the cocaine was removed? Then there would be no weight discrepancy. This whole thing smells like a witch hunt. Is this Broward County, or Salem Massachusetts?
The court system must depend on the credibility and trustworthiness of the crime lab to a certain extent. Due to what could be sheer happenstance, Kelli has been asked to prove herself by running a gauntlet that few would welcome.
Regarding the suspected MDMA:
"The bust of a dealer with 363 pills that were field-tested as positive for MDMA in 2012, only to come up negative in the lab."
First, the definition of "pill"
"referring to anything small and round for a specific dose of medicine"
"Pill" can refer to tablets or capsules.
The Broward detective was not specific in the evidence description. He could have used "tablet" or "capsule" but instead used "pill" which can mean either.
The detective failed to document by photo or description what the evidence was, and couldn't even say for sure whether they were tablets or capsules. The color, shape, and any imprints or markings of shapes or numbers and letters were also not documented. It is also common for police to make small errors or omissions in descriptions of evidence. These can either be corrected by the agency when asked by the personnel receiving the evidence, or by the crime lab personnel who work on the case. Many crime labs would have a form to fill out documenting such corrections. Considering the importance of police and crime lab work, it seems like the old adage, if it is not written down it didn't happen, applies here.
Regarding the field test showing MDMA:
Field test kits can be helpful to indicate but not prove the presence of a drug. Because of the conditions in the field, and the variations in color, and time to get a result, these tests are not as reliable as screening tests done in a crime lab. For example screening tests with multiple steps are easier to do in a lab. And the screening tests are also not as reliable as confirmation tests, usually done with instrumentation.
In some cases another drug can appear to give a similar result in a field test kit. In some cases the drug is fake but has been specially formulated to 'fool' a field test kit. It is not uncommon to have a negative result at the crime lab for something that had field tested positive. It is also not uncommon for a different controlled drug to show up, while the drug that was indicated by the field test kit is missing in action. In all such cases, the crime lab result is the definitive result.
In some parts of the country, police agencies use special test kits meant to be performed in their own lab area. The results from these can be used for example for preliminary hearings at court. If the case actually goes to trial, then the evidence can be sent to the crime lab for more specialized testing.
For a trial the prosecutor and court will almost always ask for testing by the crime lab. But recently there was a rare exception from Huntsville Alabama:
"If police say it's cocaine, no lab test required for drug conviction, court rules"
By Brian Lawson May 02, 2014
MDMA usually is found in tablets but has been found in capsules containing powder, or simply in powder. Many suspected MDMA tablets or capsules actually turn out to contain something else these days.
For an agency to claim that the result from a field test kit should supersede the result from crime lab testing will smack of the ridiculous to any crime lab analyst.
Regarding the 363 pills:
The agency did not have to submit all of these to the crime lab. A sampling of a few 'pills' should have been sufficient. In that case the agency would know what the items were, even though it was not written down.
It seems questionable why the 363 'pills' are even on the list of discrepancies in this article. The agency failed to keep any of the 'pills', failed to document in writing what the evidence was, failed to take a picture, and the detective is not certain whether the 'pills' were tablets or capsules, and if they were tablets, what kind of tablets.
So the police started out with "approximately 38 lbs" of Kadeesha's marijuana. They weighed it again and it was down to 'only' "approximately 31 pounds". Lost 7 pounds (huh?) and that draws no comment from the reporter? The Kelli weighs it at the lab and finds 'only' 28.1 pounds. So she only 'lost' 2.9 pounds and she gets a desk job while the police can 'lose' 7 pounds and not get assigned a desk job?
Several questions can come up on the weight. The Broward Sheriff's Office lab is accredited by ascld-lab. This means that the Broward lab scales (balances) are calibrated and checked. But what about the scales the police are using? Probably not.
Note also that the word "approximately" is used to describe the police weight results both times.Did the police weight the marijuana with the packaging? The lab weighs it without. Could the marijuana lose weight by drying out?
There is an article published in the Customs Laboratory Bulletin Volume 7 Number 2 April 1995 by Eric C Hahn Ph.D. of the U.S. Customs Laboratory, New Orleans, LA titled "On The Weight Variation Of Marihuana With Time".
"From the serious nature of controlled substances, variations in the weight of the property as received by the SPS/SPC and as inspected at some later date (normally, prior to destruction) are causes of great concern."
"Although there are usually some small weight discrepancies when seized controlled substance property is reweighed, (such as amphetamines, Methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin and typical controlled prescription drugs), by far, the largest discrepancies occur with marihuana seized property."
"Just how much water can marihuana contain at any given temperature? Literature references show that plant or vegetative matter consisting chiefly of leaves and stems can contain anywhere from approximately 80% to 95% water by weight (2). As the plant dries, it can continue to lose all of its water until it becomes completely dry."
Every elected or appointed official, judge, prosecutor and cop in Florida should be drug tested 4 times a year...put the hypocritical 'drug warriors' in prison.