LAB MIX-UP ALARMS ATTORNEYS
The director of the state crime laboratory in Ripon is investigating how one of his staffers mistook diet supplement for methamphetamine in capsules taken from a man arrested in Lodi earlier this year.
A contrite John Yoshida, director of the California Department of Justice's laboratory, said he's struggling to understand the gaffe so the mistake isn't repeated. The lab has no record of erring like this before, he said.
"We are looking at every possibility under the sun," to figure out how the mistake occurred, Yoshida said. "Regrettably, it did happen."
Defense attorneys in San Joaquin County said the shoddy analysis raises doubt about the lab's credibility. The lab analyzes DNA, fingerprints and firearms that form the bedrock evidence used to put away scores of criminals.
For Lodi resident Ryan Tetz, the lab's work could have brought him up to four years in state prison that he didn't deserve, said his attorney Kristine Eagle. She hopes other attorneys will be skeptical of the lab's results.
"I think they have something to prove here," Eagle said. "I think they have a problem."
A California Highway Patrol officer arrested Tetz, 24, on April 23 in Lodi after the officer said Tetz was driving erratically. Tetz was first charged with misdemeanor drunken driving and two felony cocaine counts in connection with four plastic baggies of a white powdery substance.
A San Joaquin County deputy district attorney added two felony charges when the Ripon lab returned its results, saying another 54 white capsules Tetz had were filled with methamphetamine.
Questioning the meth results, Eagle sent the capsules to an independent lab in Sacramento for further analysis. The capsules didn't contain methamphetamine but probably a health supplement, the independent lab found. She didn't ask for retests of the alleged bags of cocaine.
Tetz, who entered pleas of not guilty on all counts, returns to court Sept.
19. Deputy District Attorney Patrick O'Hern said he will review the case.
The methamphetamine charges will be dropped if the final tests came back negative, he said.
Eagle said her concerns run deep.
"How many samples are not retested and are in error?" Eagle said. "Unless we test every sample, we're not really going to know."
Tetz's pills were analyzed in a Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, an instrument considered the "gold standard" in drug testing, said Edwin Smith, a criminalist for the independent Drug Detection Laboratories in Sacramento. Smith did the analysis for Eagle's client.
The mistake likely happened because the instrument wasn't cleaned well before Tetz's pills were tested, or airborne methamphetamine contaminated his test sample or the wrong sample got tested, Smith speculated.
"It's very embarrassing for the laboratory," he said.
Yoshida said he had an analyst work for two weeks investigating the meth mix-up. No conclusions have been made about how the error occurred, Yoshida said.
The state's $12 million crime lab that opened in Ripon in 2002 does crime analysis for about 80 law enforcement agencies in five Central Valley counties. The lab each year analyzes some 21,000 samples of drugs, Yoshida said.
San Joaquin County's lead public defender Jim Larsen called the mistake worrisome. The instrument used to test drugs has earned a reputation for reliability independent of the analyst operating it, so attorneys don't usually ask for back-up testing, he said.
"That's what's particularly alarming about this situation," Larsen said.
Jim Stam, a San Diego crime analyst and president of the California Association of Criminalists, said mistaken analysis is very rare. More often, small traces of a drug are likely to lead an analyst to find the test inconclusive, in favor of the person facing charges, he said.
"We're taught to be conservative because somebody's life is on the line,"