Potentially thousands of drunken-driving convictions in Colorado could be appealed because of problems at a state laboratory, defense lawyers said Monday, but prosecutors called that an overstatement.
Members of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar said the appeals could come in cases as serious as vehicular homicides.
They also questioned why state officials did not release a report on the problems until Friday when it was completed in March.
The report said some employees of the lab at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment complained that a supervisor made statements suggesting a bias in favor of prosecutors. The report also said refrigerators containing blood samples were unlocked.
The report did not conclude that anyone lied on the stand or that any test samples were tainted, said Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council.
Raynes said the supervisor’s behavior as described in the report would be unprofessional and inappropriate, but “that doesn’t mean you lied on the stand or did something improper.”
Chris Urbina, executive director of the health department, said Monday that the problem was primarily a personnel matter and that the department acted promptly when it received the report in March. Urbina said the supervisor was transferred and later retired.
It was not immediately clear whether or how the supervisor’s allegedly biased statements might have affected any court testimony she gave about test results.
The report on the lab was compiled by the Mountain States Employers Council, a human resources consultancy.
The health department laboratory is one of at least three that law-enforcement officials can use to test blood samples for alcohol content. It wasn’t immediately known what percentage of the tests are handled by the health department.
The report on the state lab is dated March 18 and was released by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers late Friday.
Sean McDermott, president of the defense attorney’s group, criticized the attorney general’s office for not releasing the report sooner.
“When a prosecutor finds information that directly goes to the guilt, innocence or competence of an important witness, or any witness … they’re supposed to turn it over immediately,” McDermott told reporters Monday. He said hundreds of additional tests might have gone through the lab since March.
Suthers released a statement Monday, saying he acted quickly to release the report once state prosecutors learned its findings could affect some cases.
He said the details of the report are a complex combination of issues involving civil, privacy and employment laws.
A news release issued by the defense lawyers group called the incident a “cover-up,” but McDermott backed off from that allegation.
“Back in March, DAs’ offices, if they didn’t know about this report, they should have known about it,” he said.
Defense attorneys said the report has shaken the confidence of Coloradans in the trustworthiness of prosecution evidence.
McDermott said the defense lawyers were calling for an investigation of the lab by an agency independent of the Colorado attorney general. McDermott suggested the federal Department of Justice investigate, saying it is a civil rights issue.
The defense lawyers also want the health department lab to be accredited by an outside group.
Urbina agreed with the accreditation suggestion and said steps were already being taken to do that.
He said employees were getting more training not only in performing tests in the laboratory but in providing court testimony.
“I think the public needs to know that we are handling this personnel issue and that we care about the proficiency of our employees,” Urbina said.
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