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Drug cases in jeopardy

The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Main Edition
BYLINE: DAVID J. MITCHELL; RIVER PARISHES BUREAU

Assumption Parish, LA

Evidence tampering might affect other investigations

District Attorney Ricky Babin has informed judges and public defenders of the 23rd Judicial District that possible tampering in an Assumption Parish Sheriff's Office evidence locker could affect "several hundred narcotics cases."

But some law enforcement officials said it is still too soon in ongoing investigations to say how many might have been affected.

"We're just digging into it," said Sgt. Markus Smith, spokesman for Louisiana State Police, the agency investigating the matter at the request of parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack.

On April 9, Waguespack announced that evidence custodian Lt. Louis Lambert, a 17-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office, had mishandled narcotics associated with a single illegal pill distribution case.

Waguespack said at the time that he had asked the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office, State Police and a third party auditor to look into the incident.

In the April 15 letter, Babin wrote that his office discovered evidence in one case had been "altered," in that "purported drugs allegedly seized on the street do not match those received" by the State Police Crime Lab.

It's not clear what happened to the drugs or how they might have been mishandled, but Babin wrote that State Police told him the problem could be "widespread, affecting several hundred narcotics cases."

Babin has requested that no pleas or decisions be rendered until he can fully determine which cases are affected and disclose them.

He wrote he wanted "to prevent any injustice by decisions being made by defense counsel or the court based on unreliable evidence."

The letter was addressed to the judges of the 23rd Judicial District Court, 23rd District Defender Alan Robert and two public defenders working on felony cases in Assumption Parish. The 23rd Judicial District encompasses Assumption, Ascension and St. James parishes.

The letter became public knowledge Thursday and was subsequently confirmed with Babin.

The district attorney said Thursday he has an ethical obligation to disclose the situation after talking with State Police officials.

"They told me it could be extensive, so that is when I wrote the letter," Babin said.

But Smith said State Police investigators right now cannot say whether one case, 10 cases or 100 cases have been affected.

"We are going to have to get into the investigation and determine the extent of the problem," Smith said.

He said the investigation is being treated as a criminal matter, and Babin has asked that the evidence locker be treated as a crime scene.

Neither State Police nor the Sheriff's Office have arrested Lambert in connection with the incident, authorities said.

Lambert, 47, of Labadieville, has been on administrative leave since April 3.

Waguespack agreed with Babin's decision to make a "full and complete" disclosure but suggested the letter described a possible "worst-case scenario."

Waguespack also said it was too soon to say how many cases may be affected.

Waguespack said that the evidence vault has been sealed in preparation for an audit by Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute, a division of the Indianapolis, Ind.-based Public Agency Training Council, a police training company.

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