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The State

Columbia police chief: Drug analyst resigns; nearly 200 cases may be in jeopardy

By Harrison Cahill

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said Monday that the department’s only drug analyst has resigned and that 188 criminal drug cases in which her tests were crucial evidence are now in jeopardy.


The drug tests done by Brenda Frazier in those 188 cases will need to be reviewed by other agencies following an internal audit of the department’s drug analysis lab, Holbrook said at a news conference at police headquarters.


Frazier submitted her resignation Monday, the chief said.


Last week, Holbrook closed the department’s drug lab after a departmental review found Frazier wasn’t following standardized procedures required to make sure her drug testing results were accurate. Her determinations for both the weight of tested drugs, and what kind of drugs were being tested, are open to question, law enforcement officials have said.


Frazier, who had been working at the lab since 2011, had done analyses in a total of 746 cases, Holbrook said, and she had testified in court numerous times.


Midlands criminal defense lawyers, notified Friday of the drug lab problems, said they are glad Holbrook and 5th Circuit solicitor Dan Johnson are taking action to review Frazier’s cases.


“This is serious – her job is important. Her drug tests can put people away for five, 10, 15 years,” said Jack Swerling, a Columbia defense lawyer who has handled numerous high profile drug and murder cases. He has taught at University of South Carolina Law School, held seminars and commented on national television.


“The fact that she was involved in upwards of 1,000 cases is very significant, particularly for people who may have been convicted on the basis of faulty drug analyses,” Swerling said. “This is going to open up the door for people to challenge all her old cases, too.”

Swerling said while Holbrook and Johnson are “doing the right thing legally and ethically” by acknowledging Frazier’s actions and taking action, they need at the end of the controversy to issue a full report letting people know how someone like her was hired by the city of Columbia and kept on, and how many cases were compromised.


Holbrook said he was troubled after finding that Frazier was the only chemist working in the drug analysis lab after he conducted a 90-day review of the department’s operations. Holbrook initiated the review after becoming chief in March.


Frazier was trained under a former lab technician at SLED and received in-house training from the Columbia Police Department, but became the department’s only chemist shortly after she was hired, according to Holbrook.


“Historically, there have been two chemists and that is important in this process because they do what we call peer review,” Holbrook said. “So when you lack two chemists, it requires you to go outside and have regional chemists conduct peer reviews, and I learned at that time that wasn’t being done.”


Since Frazier was the only chemist working with the Columbia Police Department, she would get peer reviews from lab analysts at the Orangeburg Department of Public Safety, Aiken County Sheriff’s Office and Lexington County Sheriff’s Office, according to Holbrook.


But Holbrook said neighboring labs stopped working with Frazier in February, because she was not open to following accepted methodologies during her peer reviews.

From that time forward, 188 cases were in a “holding pattern,” Holbrook said, because they were not being peer reviewed by other chemists.


“The peer review system is what makes sure you are adhering to industry standards and those accepted methodologies within the laboratory world,” Holbrook said. “Evidently she began deviating from those standards and when that was brought to her attention by the peer review group, she did not accept that criticism and accept those corrections.”


After learning his lab might have problems, Holbrook said he turned to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to conduct peer reviews for Frazier’s pending drug cases.

Holbrook said he was alarmed after the double-checking by the sheriff’s department showed a weight discrepancy due to Frazier’s improper methods in a pending drug trafficking charge.


“At that time, I elected that we stop doing testing altogether and we started submitting all of our drug evidence that needs analysis to SLED for testing,” Holbrook said. “Some time after that, I made the decision that at this time these deficiencies were insurmountable, and we need to shut down all operations and revisit what the future of our lab would be.”

Analysts such as Frazier perform crucial work in all criminal drug cases. Their chemical tests determine exactly what kind of substance police have seized. They weigh the substance, because the more an illegal substance weighs, the higher a penalty a defendant can face.


The results of their analyses are used by prosecutors, who routinely tell juries they can trust what a drug analyst says. Defense lawyers, who often don’t have the resources to hire their own independent drug testers, use police drug lab results to advise clients on whether to plead guilty to a charge or go to trial.


Law officials don’t know how many wrongful convictions may have resulted from Frazier’s work, nor do they know if anyone was wrongly convicted and sent to prison. They say they are working to find out that information.


Staff writer John Monk contributed.

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