Gazette opinion: The good, bad and ugly of the state crime lab cases

THE BILLINGS GAZETTE, billingsgazette.com
BYLINE: THE BILLINGS GAZETTE EDITORIAL BOARD

Billings, MT

2016-03-17_good bad ugly state crime lab cases_01

The autopy room at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, Montana photographed in October 2015.KURT WILSON, Missoulian

A continuing investigation at the state crime lab in Missoula so far has left us with more questions than answers.
Last week, The Yellowstone County Attorney's Office had to drop charges against a man in a drug case because of tampering at the crime lab. This was the first of several cases which may be either dismissed or diminished because what appears to be tampering.

Former Missoula police lieutenant Steve Brester who was serving as an evidence technician at state crime lab is accused of stealing prescription medication sent to the lab by county for investigation. Missing prescription medication was discovered during a crime lab audit and the state correctly had to start notifying county attorneys of the problems with the evidence. And, as most people might guess, problems with the evidence means that a case cannot be prosecuted.

The good news -- if there is such a thing in a case like this -- is that the safeguards working to detect the tampering worked, albeit with about a nine-month lag. A system of checks and balances has been designed to make sure this kind of tampering doesn't go unnoticed. For example, some of the evidence containers that were tested at the lab came back empty -- a sure sign that something went wrong. Authorities noticed and started checking.

In other words: The system worked. That's why it's important to ask the questions that naturally follow after a pretty shocking incident like this. How did this happen? How can it be prevented? Was it preventable?

But it's also equally important to remember that the system of checks worked. It did detect something wrong and ultimately, there may be criminal charges.

It also is a good reminder that there is probably no way to ensure a fail-safe, foolproof system that would absolutely, positively guarantee this will never happen again. The attorney general and the crime lab have to hire trustworthy professionals. The same can be said for almost any profession that has an aspect of public trust. In this case, it's hard to imagine a law enforcement professional with more than 20 years' experience being accused of tampering, but that appears to be the case.

It's important to remember this is a very sad, shocking exception, not the rule. We hope that any further actions to help beef up security doesn't mean additional delays in an already backlogged crime lab.

The bad news here is that without additional expense or cumbersome new processes, there isn't a lot more that can be done to safeguard against this sort of thing happening. When it comes right down to it: You have to trust the people doing the crime lab testing.

According to the Montana Attorney General's office, the state crime lab's security measures met or exceeded all accreditation standards from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.

"I would liken our continual vigilance to that of software developers so never stop looking for vulnerabilities in what they build. We take the same approach and we do so with the utmost seriousness," said AG spokesman John Barnes.

The ugly and most tragic part of this mess is that the investigation is still going and even right now there are 50 drug cases across the state of Montana that were impacted, including at least 15 cases here in Yellowstone County.

The real tragedy isn't just of missing evidence or a state employee who may have acted criminally. The real tragedy is that those involved in drug cases will not be brought to justice. Those cases will be dismissed on what amounts to a very serious technicality -- one that cannot nor should not be overlooked. However, there are men and women in law enforcement who oftentimes were put in dangerous situations in order to bring these cases forward. In many of those cases, prosecutors spent hours working on the cases, bringing them to court. In other cases, some of the accused were repeat offenders and may pose a risk to society, but will nonetheless may be cut loose because of this situation.

No one really wins in this case. Communities lose. Prosecutors lose. And the state's crime lab loses credibility.

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