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The State

People wrongly imprisoned? Drug cases likely  flawed as Columbia's police lab  shut down

By John Monk

The Columbia Police Department has shut down its drug lab after an investigation found an analyst in the lab was not properly trained and her handling and analysis of drugs seized in criminal investigations were likely flawed.


That analyst – who apparently isn’t qualified to do expert drug scientific analysis – has testified and provided evidence for criminal court cases in recent years and therefore those cases may be compromised, 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson said Saturday.

On Friday, Johnson notified numerous attorneys who are members of the Midlands Bar that drug evidence in cases handled by Columbia police drug analyst Brenda Frazier was potentially flawed. These cases include crack cocaine and marijuana charges, Johnson indicated.


Johnson, who oversees cases in the 5th Circuit’s Richland and Kershaw counties, didn’t know how many cases there were in which Frazier had testified or had vouched for evidence.


“That’s one of the things we are working to determine,” he said. He said he didn’t think the number was particularly high. Frazier conducted analyses in 2012, 2013 and the first few months of 2014, he said.


Frazier’s flawed findings might have caused defendants to be wrongly sent to prison, a local defense lawyer said Saturday.


“This analyst testified in court, and juries rely on that testimony,” said Jack Duncan, former president of the S.C. Defense Lawyers Association. “This could be anybody’s son or daughter wrongly sent to prison.”


Analysts do chemical tests to determine exactly what kind of substance police have seized. They also weigh the substance. Then they forward the results of their analysis to prosecutors for use in court.


Inaccuracy is bad for everyone concerned, prosecutors and defense lawyers said.

“If you can’t trust the weight, we have problems,” Johnson said. “That’s because the more an illegal substance weighs, the higher a prison sentence a defendant is exposed to. Everybody needs to be able to rely on that information. If it’s not correct, we have a problem – and that’s where we are.”


Johnson said the major drug cases are usually prosecuted in state court and that few, if any, of the city's drug defendants had been wrongly sentenced to prison. If he finds such to be the case, he will move immediately to get them out, he said. "I didn't get elected to send anybody who's innocent to prison," he said.


The police department shut down the lab on Thursday, according to Chief Skip Holbrook. City cases are being sent to the State Law Enforcement Division for analysis, Holbrook said Saturday.


In a statement released Saturday night, Mayor Steve Benjamin said, “I learned of this matter on Friday evening and continue to seek answers to the issues raised.” Benjamin said he had talked with Holbrook earlier in the weekend.


“I am confident he's doing what he must to correct matters,” Benjamin said. “The Columbia Police Department will have my full support in securing whatever resources Chief Holbrook needs to get the job done.”


City manager Teresa Wilson said Saturday night that she learned Friday from Holbrook that he had decided to close the lab. Holbrook had kept her informed of potential problems at the lab but didn’t reach a final decision until Thursday, she said.

“I'm allowing the chief to do his job,” Wilson said, adding that his ongoing departmental assessment did its job in uncovering the problem. However, she said, exactly what the city needs to do with the lab needs study.


Duncan said most lawyers and their clients don’t question the accuracy of police lab work. Moreover, defense lawyers and their clients usually don’t have the money to hire an independent expert to do their own analysis, he said. Some lawyers, impressed by the supposedly accurate police lab work, may wrongly try to persuade a client to plead guilty, he said.


Fifth Circuit Public Defender Doug Strickler, who oversees about 30 court-appointed criminal lawyers in Richland and Kershaw counties, said he, too, is concerned that some defendants might have been wrongly sent to prison or convinced to plead guilty.

“At this point, we’re doing a case-by-case review,” Strickler said. He said the city police lab provides “a substantial number” of drug analyses each year in his criminal cases, but he didn’t know an exact number. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department lab provides more.


Johnson said he is reviewing not only pending cases in which Frazier testified, but also “closed cases in which Brenda Frazier performed the drug analysis.” He will notify defense lawyers of any pertinent information he finds, he said.


Columbia police chief Holbrook said Saturday that Frazier has been “relieved of her duties,” is technically still employed by the city and that her situation is “pending.”

Efforts to reach Frazier on Saturday were unsuccessful.


Johnson said one other person worked in the lab when it was closed.


After assuming the chief’s post, Holbrook said, he initiated a department-wide quality assessment that included the drug lab. The assessment pointed to questions about the lab, he said, and he contacted the solicitor’s office. Also, Johnson’s office was learning through one of his assistant prosecutors there might be problems with some of the city drug analyses.


Holbrook said his goal is to reopen a top crime lab, “to have a functioning, accredited forensic drug laboratory that follows sound, accepted scientific methodology – that is the only acceptable standard there should be. Nothing else is acceptable.”


Johnson said “the key thing” in the whole matter is that no matter how embarrassing the matter is, “that Chief Holbrook and I are working together, trying to do the right thing.”

On June 16, Johnson said, he sent Holbrook a letter asking him to look into the situation. Holbrook immediately contacted the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and got expert drug analyst Demetra Garvin to look into the situation.


Garvin, a Furman graduate with 30 years experience in forensics, has a doctor of clinical pharmacy degree from the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy and was a staff toxicologist and drug chemist for SLED for 16 years before joining the sheriff’s department.


Under Sheriff Leon Lott, Garvin has overseen the development of numerous specialties for his drug lab, including crime scene and latent prints, firearms and tool marks, fire debris and DNA analysis. She specializes in drug identification and has been lab director for seven years.


Strickler said language in Johnson’s Friday letter led him to think that the city crime lab’s problems may go beyond just the work of Frazier.


Although the letter specifically cited Frazier’s work in some places, other parts of the letter referred to generally applicable lab matters such as possibly unacceptable temperature controls for drug storage.


“There were some lab-wide problems,” Strickler said. “They shut the whole lab down.”

Holbrook, who said he didn’t share Strickler’s opinion, said he shut the lab down because he “ felt it was essentially beyond repair. It was in the interest of justice.”

His goal in the current situation, Holbrook said, is to “identify problem areas that need correcting, take action to correct them and move forward. The public needs to have confidence in us, and although this is a misstep, the way we deal with it is how we restore confidence.


“That’s why it’s important we’re transparent and up front, admit the shortcomings we have and make sure people are confident in us to do our job at the highest level,” Holbrook said.


Garvin reviewed the lab on July 11 and Aug. 5, according to Johnson’s letter.


Among Garvin’s findings, cited in the letter, were:


• Many of the laboratory’s written standard operating procedures did not appear to be consistent with actual practices.
• The lab’s standard operating procedures were issued only after the analysis was performed.
• There was inadequate quality assurance for the weighing of physical evidence.
• Frazier may not be familiar with or understand proper evidence sampling methods. Sampling may have fallen short of best practices.
• Improper storage temperatures may have allowed physical evidence to degrade.
• Frazier has “significant gaps in her previous training and experience and may not currently possess the knowledge necessary to competently perform drug analysis.”


Johnson said he was obligated to tell defense lawyers.


“I have a duty to the truth,” Johnson said. “One of things I do is make sure we do the right thing – this was the right thing to do.”


Under well-established U.S. Supreme Court decisions, prosecutors are supposed to turn over evidence to defense lawyers. Among other things, lawyers need accurate information on the evidence a prosecutor has before they can advise clients whether to plead guilty or to go to trial.


“My concern was getting the information out there so the lawyers who handled those cases could react appropriately, and then we will deal with those matters in court,” Johnson said.

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