The high-tech, sophisticated Broward Sheriff’s Office crime lab is itself under the microscope after losing evidence in a drug case.
"The crime lab lost a half gram of cocaine," said Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes.
The BSO conducted an internal affairs investigation. The 15-page report, completed in August 2012, cites the missing 0.4 grams of crack cocaine and concludes that it was never found, and investigators were unable to determine how it was lost or whether someone may have taken it.
The drug was seized from a teenager who was ultimately prosecuted.
"That case where the cocaine was actually lost proceeded all the way through with a plea and at no time was the individual ever informed that the evidence in their case had been lost in the crime lab," Weekes said.
The Broward Public Defender's Office just learned about the missing cocaine and the internal affairs report a couple of weeks ago and says other cases could now be tainted by the missing cocaine, and by a criminalist described in the report as being unorganized in her work.
"And if the crime lab is losing evidence," Weekes pointed out, "if they are commingling evidence, if there is the potential that someone is taking evidence from the crime lab, then that goes to the heart of the reliability of the crime lab and the fact that this occurred in one case, there's the potential it could've occurred in other cases."
However, prosecutors say it's painting the lab with too broad of a brush to suggest that one case means the entire crime lab is unreliable.
"It's one incident over many, many years, over thousands of pieces of evidence, so I'm not sure it means much," said Jeff Marcus of the Broward State Attorney's Office.
Marcus said prosecutors didn't know about the missing cocaine until the public defender's office told them about it.
"This is not earth shaking," Marcus said.
When asked if the public defender was making a mountain out of a molehill, Marcus responded, "Absolutely, there's no evidence that it's a systemic problem with the crime lab."
"The state would try to minimize the importance of losing evidence in a crime lab," Weekes said, "but the reality is you cannot minimize the fact that half a gram of cocaine is somewhere floating around inside the crime lab, and that potential to taint other pieces of evidence is there."
The public defender's office is asking for an outside agency, such as the FBI or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to do a full-scale audit of the crime lab.
The state attorney's office said it is engaged now in discussions with the sheriff's office about the crime lab's practices and procedures.
The criminalist who lost the cocaine, as technicians in the crime lab are called, was given a verbal reprimand after the internal affairs investigation concluded.
The state attorney's office said it will allow the teenager involved in the missing drugs case to vacate his plea agreement and the case will eventually be dropped for lack of evidence.
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