Work by the Washington State Patrol Toxicology Laboratory can help prosecutors keep roadways safe from impaired drivers, determine whether a rape victim was drugged or provide answers about a suspicious death. In a legal system where opposing sides may debate through perspective and perception, we trust that forensic science can provide important facts to inform the process.
However, that trust has been jeopardized after methamphetamine contamination was found in the toxicology lab, with the potential of impacting thousands of cases. Especially disappointing, lab administrators also neglected to notify prosecutors — who are bound by law to disclose potentially exculpatory information to defendants — for more than a year.
Lab officials say they have addressed the issues and that no blood evidence was compromised, but questions remain — questions that can hamper the pursuit of justice. Lab administrators should welcome an independent review to clear up any doubt.
Problems began in 2018, after the toxicology lab took over space formerly used by the State Patrol’s crime lab. Unbeknown to lab officials, the crime lab had used the space to cook meth for training purposes, synthesizing the drug at least a dozen times over nine years.
After finding nine false positive meth tests over an eight-month period, the lab left the space and hired a contractor to clean up any contamination. According to court testimony by then-acting toxicology lab manager Dr. Brianna Peterson, the lab identified the issue, took corrective action and disclosed what had happened to its accreditation board. Still,,administrators failed to inform prosecutors.
Once prosecutors found out — through an offhand remark at a “social setting,” according to reporting by the Times’ Lewis Kamb — they notified legal defense groups statewide. Since March, public defenders have used problems at the lab to successfully fend off DUI charges in at least three cases.
In one of those proceedings, Pierce County District Court Judge Claire Sussman determined there was “governmental mismanagement” in the lab’s failure to determine that the space the lab moved into was free of contaminants, in its performance of meth testing in an area that had previously been used to synthesize the drug and in delaying disclosure to prosecuting authorities.
Experts have also raised questions about the lab’s ability to determine that no other samples were impacted. Testifying in the Pierce County case, Janine Arvizu, a nationally recognized certified auditor, said meth contamination could occur during the initial opening of a sample. That means any confirmatory test would be tainted as well.
A recent sampling of the toxicology lab shows the problem hasn’t gone away, with residual levels of cocaine and meth found at several sites, and two false meth results reported this year.
Peterson, who managed the lab until June and has since declined to comment, is also the subject of a King County public defender’s motion that alleges she presented false testimony in the Pierce County case and in a generic declaration still used by prosecutors about the lab’s contamination, according to reporting.
Officials said the lab has received training about legal-disclosure obligations, that clean up and monitoring is ongoing and that an on-site assessment by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is scheduled for November. The lab has also reviewed thousands of cases in which blood testing detected meth and has found no discrepancies.
These are important remedial steps, but the bungled set up of the lab expansion in 2018, the initial disregard for disclosure and the continued contamination can’t help but raise skepticism about in-house course correction.
An outside investigation can help restore trust.