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Defense lawyers kept unaware of criminal past

BYLINE: Brent Begin, Examiner Staff Writer,

San Francisco, CA

SAN FRANCISCO — Defense attorneys were kept in the dark for some two years about the criminal history of a San Francisco Police Department crime lab technician who police say took cocaine from evidence samples.

San Francisco Crime LabDeborah Madden, 60, was convicted in 2008 of misdemeanor domestic violence and vandalism and was sentenced to probation for three years and 30 days in County Jail, according to the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.

However, there was confusion about who was supposed to notify defense attorneys of Madden’s criminal history, according to San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Brian Buckelew.

“It looks like it fell through the cracks,” Buckelew said.

The Police Department did initiate its own internal investigation and disciplined Madden, according to Director Jerry Tidwell of the SFPD’s risk management section. A misdemeanor charge does not necessarily disqualify someone from employment at the Police Department, he said.

But prosecutors are required to divulge the criminal history of witnesses such as Madden, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Attorneys can use that information to discredit a witness.

Madden has not been arrested, and no charges have been filed in connection with police accusations that she took trace amounts of cocaine from evidence samples she analyzed. Calls to her San Mateo home Wednesday were not immediately returned.

But questions still remain about the credibility of the crime lab’s evidence, its oversight and the refusal in the past to shut down the lab to investigate irregularities.

About 30 cases were dismissed or discharged Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court, and more are expected to be thrown out today after police Chief George Gascón ordered a shutdown of the department’s drug analysis.

Now, the Pubic Defender’s Office is working to dismiss thousands of cases in which Madden was involved.

A November audit by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors concluded that the lab was underfunded and had to use mandatory overtime to analyze evidence in time for trials. The report also cited problems with the transfer of evidence and with lab cleanliness.

Deputy Public Defender Bicka Barlow has been working since 1996 to create more transparency at the lab, where she says there have been several breakdowns in evidence analysis.

“Things go on there that would otherwise not go on in other laboratories,” Barlow said. “It’s a closed and secret society of criminalists.”

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