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Del. drug cases may be halted due to lab problems

The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal,
BYLINE: Sean O’Sullivan, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal

Wilmington, DE

An audit is being conducted after drugs were missing or replaced in an evidence locker.

(Photo: Drug Enforcement Administration)

WILMINGTON, Del. — After drugs were discovered missing or replaced with fakes in an evidence locker, state prosecutors on Monday asked courts to suspend all pending drug trials for 60 days.

The prosecutors blame ongoing problems at the Controlled Substances Laboratory at the Delaware Medical Examiner's Office.

On Friday, it was revealed that drugs had gone missing — or sometimes were replaced with fakes — between 2010 and 2012 in at least 15 criminal cases where drugs had been sent to the state lab.

The evidence locker at the medical examiner's office was immediately seized and secured by Delaware State Police and investigators began conducting an audit of the locker's contents.

Police agencies across the state have been asked to review their records of all drug evidence sent to the medical examiner's office for testing in order to compare against records at the Controlled Substances Lab.

The lab conducts verification testing on drug evidence for all Delaware law enforcement agencies and employs six of the 53 people at the medical examiner's office.

Since Friday, additional cases have been uncovered, according to the Delaware Attorney General's Office, but the exact number of new cases was not revealed.

"The audit (of the drug lab) is ongoing," said spokesman Jason Miller.

In letters to the chief judges of Superior Court, Court of Common Pleas and Family Court sent on Monday, State Prosecutor Kathleen Jennings reports that the full nature and scope of the problems at the Controlled Substances Laboratory "has yet to be established and the review must, necessarily, be treated as an active criminal investigation."

"For these reasons and in the interest of justice, the State respectfully requests that all pending trials where drug evidence was submitted to the OCME-CSL (Office of the Chief Medical Examiner – Controlled Substances Laboratory) for analysis be stayed for a period of 60 days," wrote Jennings. "This time will allow for both the state and the defense to develop a better understanding of the issues involved and, at the same time, prevent the return of verdicts based on incomplete information."

Jennings wrote that the delay will also allow for review and retesting in some cases.

Delaware Public Defender Brendan O'Neill said late Monday that he opposes this "one size fits all" shutdown of drug trials, saying that each case should continue to be evaluated individually.

Delaware prosecutors first found out about problems with the drug testing lab on Jan. 14, during the prosecution in Kent County Superior Court of Tyrone Walker for drug dealing.

On the first day of trial, the first witness, a Delaware State Police trooper, was asked by prosecutor D. Benjamin Snyder to open up one of the evidence bags and identify the contents for the jury.

"Are those the 65 blue pills you seized?" asked Snyder, according to Walker's attorney Christopher Tease.

"No, they are not," replied the trooper, according to Tease. At that point the trooper was holding a pouch full of 13 pink-colored pills that had been inside the sealed envelope.

Tease said in his 17 years as a defense attorney he has never seen anything like that. "It was a first," he said.

Snyder then immediately asked for a recess and asked to speak to the judge at sidebar, Tease recalled. A short time later, prosecutors reached a plea deal with Walker to lesser drug charges that freed him on probation. If the 43-year-old Walker had been convicted of the most serious charges, he was facing a four-year minimum mandatory sentence, said Tease.

The 65 blue pills had been identified previously as the powerful painkiller Oxycontin. State officials last week said the pink pills that ended up in the evidence envelope were blood pressure medication.

The state's Controlled Substances Lab has been suspended from conducting further drug testing as the investigation continues.

Delaware State Police Sgt. Paul Shavack said investigators are aggressively following the "chain of custody" of the drug evidence in the cases where drugs have gone missing or were substituted.

Shavack said Monday that arrangements are being made for outside labs to conduct drug testing that needs to be done for Delaware law enforcement while work at the lab is suspended. Other operations at the Medical Examiner's Office — like autopsies — are continuing as usual, Shavack said, and the office is continuing to cooperate with investigators.

Police and prosecutors have not yet revealed the quantity of drugs that are missing but so far it appears that most of the missing drugs are Oxycontin and there may be at least one case where marijuana was taken. While fakes were substituted in the Walker case, it appears in other cases the drugs have simply disappeared.

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