Longform

Broward Crime Lab Scandal Could Taint Many Cases

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.

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Kyle Swenson