Mercury News

Santa Clara County DA criticized for crime lab failures
By Tracey Kaplan

03/15/2009

The Santa Clara County district attorney has opened the door to the possibility of wrongful convictions by failing to objectively investigate crime lab errors, the national Innocence Project charged this week.

The group, in a national report released this week, singled out the local prosecutor for failing to hire an outside agency to investigate a formal complaint that followed the 2007 discovery that Jeffrey Rodriguez had been wrongly convicted of robbery based on faulty testimony from a crime lab analyst concerning a stain found on the defendant's pants.

Agencies facing allegations of crime lab wrongdoing are both violating the law and risking public safety by conducting their own investigations, the report concludes, citing a 5-year-old federal law that requires independent investigations of problems in any crime labs accepting federal grants. The report includes the results of a national survey, which shows labs around the country have failed to create procedures for independent investigations of crime lab problems.

The risk in such internal investigations is that "innocent people end up getting convicted and perpetrators of crime remain free," said Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project, citing the case of Rodriguez.

A spokesman for the District Attorney's Office responded that District Attorney Dolores Carr, who oversees the crime lab, has a strong interest in making certain that any lab problems are identified and corrected.

"It's in our best interest to make sure the forensic work is fair and consistent. It's the DA's reputation and the reputation of the office,'' spokesman Nick Muyo said. "For people who are saying we can't investigate ourselves, our response is we stand the most to lose so it would behoove us to do a complete and thorough investigation.''

He noted that the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the grant, has not sanctioned the District Attorney's Office or any of the many other agencies that investigate their own crime labs. "We answer to the people who give us the money,'' Muyo said.

Rodriguez was convicted at a 2003 retrial of being the robber who took the wallet of a man from a loading dock behind a Kragen Auto Parts store. One key piece of evidence in the case was the testimony by crime lab analyst Mark Moriyama that a stain on Rodriguez's pants was "indicative" of the combination of motor oil and cooking oil — a combination that prosecutor John Luft contended likely came from the mix of oils dumped at the loading dock.

The conviction later was overturned, based on finding that Rodriguez's private attorney had failed to properly represent him.

But before the case could be retried, state and federal analysts examined the pants and concluded it was not accurate to say there was evidence of oil stain on the pants, since the chemicals Moriyama analyzed could have come from a wide variety of sources other than oil — including laundry detergent.

The District Attorney's Office then dropped the case, and Rodriguez was declared innocent by a Superior Court judge. After the Northern California Innocence Project director, Kathleen Ridolfi, filed a complaint under the federal law — since the lab received $206,000 in grant money — an internal investigation by the District Attorney's Office concluded that Moriyama's lab report and testimony were more a problem of language than scientific error.

That finding came under sharp criticism, and the Innocence Project as well as Michael Kresser, the director of a state agency that assisted in Rodriguez's appeal, called upon Carr to reopen the investigation, which she declined.

Moriyama was reassigned following that case from serving as the crime lab's fiber expert. His work had come under scrutiny in other cases as well. Moriyama had failed certification tests. And murder charges against Maurice Nasmeh, in the high-profile killing of Los Gatos woman Jeanine Harms, were dropped in 2007, after a defense expert challenged Nasmeh's finding linking fibers in the back of Nasmeh's vehicle to a rug Harms was making.

Officials in the District Attorney's Office said Friday they have not yet completed their re-investigation of the evidence in that case.

District attorney spokesman Muyo said Friday that his office had re-examined Moriyama's other cases and found "no evidence to suggest that he either testified wrong or committed any errors.'' He also said that the office reviewed crime lab proficiency tests for all the lab analysts from 2003 to 2006 — almost 643 tests — and that only six indicated any need for corrective action, which he said was taken.

Muyo also said that following the internal investigation, Carr instituted other changes designed to guard against miscommunication, including assigning a member of her staff as a lab liaison, as well as providing extra training.


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