Accused Coke Thief Lab Tech Has Colleagues in High Places

Categories: Crime, Law & Order
The allegations tumbling out of the city's much-maligned crime lab seem to be ripped straight from Law & Order. Veteran lab tech Deborah Madden is accused of purloining the cocaine she was supposed to be testing, resulting in a swath of accused felony drug-pushers literally earning a Get Out Of Jail Free Card, and plenty of looming legal, governmental, and political minefields down the road.

Eh, happens all the time.

"You'd be surprised. It's not that uncommon," says Ralph Keaton, the executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board. Keaton's organization is the largest accreditation body of crime labs in the nation. Every year, he says, one or two lab techs are caught skimming. What's more, "eight to 10" narcotics investigators are nicked doing the same on a yearly basis. In fact, five years ago, David Petersen -- the president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors -- was himself jailed in Minnesota for stealing 25 grams of cocaine.

(Note: While the names are similar, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board is not affiliated with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors).

While it may be little solace to Public Defender Jeff Adachi -- who worries hundreds or more cases may have decided via tampered evidence -- Keaton said most cases of lab tech drug skimming he's heard of did not present situations where evidence was altered in a way that would send innocent people to jail.

Keaton -- who had such a situation occur in a lab he oversaw in North Carolina -- said most drug-addicted lab techs will accurately test the drugs in question, file the necessary analysis report, and then filch the drugs after the work is done. "I think you will find that to be the case most every time," he said.

Finally, while Keaton has seen this before and will see it again, longtime San Francisco legal and political figures we spoke with couldn't recall a similar case locally. Quentin Kopp started practicing law in San Francisco nearly 55 years ago, and has since served as supervisor, state senator, and judge. He couldn't think of another instance -- in the crime lab or elsewhere -- that could potentially invalidate so many legal cases.

"There might be individual cases where the chain of possession is broken," he says. "You have to go through all of that: The cop makes a bust, seizes whatever it is. Defense lawyers know how to attack that pretty good. You'll get a break in the chain of possession in individual instances. But never a defect in total lab procedures."

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