Thursday, November 18, 2004 - Los Angeles County officials scrambled Thursday to review at least 27 -- and possibly dozens -- of pending criminal cases to determine whether critical evidence was tainted or falsified during analysis by the nation's largest private DNA lab.

Orchid Cellmark, based in Maryland, notified the county recently that DNA results in an unknown number of cases might have been falsified.

The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that Cellmark notified the Los Angeles Police Department that it had fired an analyst, Sarah Blair, on accusations that she had mishandled data for some control samples. Blair denied any wrongdoing.

But the information prompted concern throughout the Los Angeles legal system, with both prosecutors and deputy public defenders reviewing all cases that might be involved.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, said officials have checked three pending murder cases, including one involving Julian Beltran of Sun Valley, who is awaiting trial in the slaying of his former girlfriend.

"We went back and looked at the evidence there and don't believe there is a problem with the evidence," Robison said. "We continue to have confidence in Cellmark. It was Cellmark who discovered the problem, so their procedures did work."

Robison said lab results also were determined to be correct in the two other murder cases reviewed -- those involving defendants Omar Chavez and Nahki Holmes, both of Los Angeles. No details of the cases were available.

In addition to the murder cases, Robison said, officials were reviewing cases involving a variety of charges. LAPD officials said the cases involved some homicides, but that most were rape cases.

"From what we can determine, none of these cases have gone to trial," Robison said.

Public Defender Michael Judge said he has assigned two of his top officials to review all the cases to determine whether there are problems.

"There is nothing that could be worse. It's not just if people are on trial, but we could have people being held without bail because of DNA tests that were falsified.

"It's so disturbing when you have inaccurate lab results for any reason, but when they are falsified, it undermines people's trust in the justice system."

Jennifer Friedman, forensic science coordinator and a deputy public defender, said Judge's office was notified by Cellmark of only two of its cases involving the fired analyst -- one case a homicide and the other a sex-offenses case.

"We were assured that the tests were redone and everything turned out the same, but we aren't so sure. We in the defense community have had problems for years getting full discovery so we can test the results. What this has done is prompt more concerns about how the tests are conducted."

Friedman said Judge's staff is going over not only the two cases on which Cellmark sent notice, but all cases in which Cellmark was used to determine if there are any problems.

"We don't know how many cases this could be -- perhaps in the dozens. We have asked all our attorneys to review their cases to see if Cellmark was used as a lab."

Steve Johnson, commanding officer of the LAPD's Scientific Investigation Division, said the department continued to have confidence in Cellmark after it disclosed the problems.

"Even though we believe there is questionable data in 11 of the 27 cases brought to our attention, they are retesting all 27 cases. Ten of those have come back already, and they showed the original findings were correct."

Johnson said Cellmark sent out its lab director to meet with LAPD officials in September to explain the problems and the steps that had been taken to correct the situation.

"Their internal procedures discovered this and they took steps to correct it immediately," Johnson said. "We're satisfied they are doing all they can."

Cellmark has a three-year, $2.7 million contract to help the LAPD clear up a backlog of cases while the agency trains its own DNA lab analysts.

"Last year, we sent them about 250 cases, and we'll send them about the same number this year," Johnson said. "We are hoping at the end of this contract to have our own people in place to do the testing."

Cellmark Chief Executive Paul J. Kelly issued a statement voicing confidence in the firm's work and saying full disclosure was made to all law enforcement agencies and defense attorneys.

"The company does not expect that any criminal case will be adversely affected by the analyst's actions. We regret that this incident occurred, but we want to assure all our stakeholders that we believe it demonstrates that our rigorous quality-assurance procedures are working as intended. We do not expect this incident to have a material impact on our business."

Cellmark does laboratory analysis for law enforcement agencies throughout the world and has worked on a number of prominent investigations, including the O.J. Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey and Unabomber cases.

Company officials said they discovered the problem through their own testing procedures and believe Blair failed to follow proper procedures for retesting when problems developed.

Friedman said she was told the testing protocols were not followed and that the analyst substituted results and changed computer records.

"It seems like this person went to an awful lot of trouble to avoid extra work."