Recent sampling at Washington’s only forensic toxicology laboratory has found more areas contaminated with methamphetamine and cocaine, raising further skepticism among defense lawyers about the integrity of blood testing being performed at a lab relied upon in thousands of criminal cases and death investigations statewide.
The latest sampling at the Washington State Patrol Toxicology Laboratory detected residual levels of cocaine on five sites and meth on four sites within the lab — mostly ceiling vents and air intake systems, a report posted this month on the lab’s website shows. Samples of three additional sites also tested presumptively positive for other drugs.
Lab officials, who maintain that blood testing isn’t being compromised by the lab’s background contamination, say the tainted sites detected by the sampling were cleaned last month. The lab will continue to periodically take samples to check for contamination in its work areas and is coordinating workplace safety and air handling assessments from a federal occupational health agency, Capt. Neil Weaver, a State Patrol spokesman, said in an email.
The lab also is receiving guidance from a state forensics advisory panel to ensure any required legal disclosures about the contamination issues are made to defendants, Weaver said.
But a lawyer who has spearheaded calls by Washington’s defense bar for an outside investigation of the lab says the latest sampling only underscores the need for the state to own up to and fix a problem that potentially throws all of the lab’s blood testing into question.
“The fact that there is still contamination despite the public messaging from the state is very alarming,” said Lynnwood public defender Bruce Adsero, whose law firm, Feldman & Lee, has pushed for more transparency from the state about the lab’s ongoing contamination problems since last year.
The latest sampling results come after the tox lab, housed on the third floor of a South Seattle office building, had falsely detected meth in blood samples tested for 11 cases since 2019. The problems surfaced after the lab expanded its operations in March 2018 across a hallway and into an annex work area where scientists with the State Patrol’s crime lab once had set up makeshift meth labs for training purposes.
Tox lab officials, after discovering a rash of false positive meth results in mid-2019, abandoned the annex space and hired a contractor, BioClean, to clean up widespread contamination detected there. But more than a year later, lab officials still hadn’t notified prosecutors — who are obligated to disclose potentially exculpatory information to defendants — about the contamination.
Prosecuting groups started disclosing some details about the problem to Washington’s legal defense community in August 2020. By then, the tox lab had returned operations to its main laboratory, where all blood testing work is now performed.
But the contamination problems have persisted, with false meth results showing up in two of the 11 cases this year.
The latest sampling occurred after the lab disclosed in April its second case this year with a false positive for meth in the main toxicology lab. Lab officials again retained BioClean to collect samples, with 100 of them sent to the National Institute of Standards & Technology, which tested them as part of an ongoing study on background narcotics contamination in forensic labs nationwide.
The results found detectable levels of both methamphetamine and cocaine in samples collected from ceiling vents and the air intake for a lab table in the main laboratory. Cocaine also was found separately in a sample taken from the air intake of a sink in the lab.
Three additional samples garnered presumptive positive results for other drugs, including the diuretics Mannitol and Sorbitol, detected on a lab refrigerator, as well as nicotine and the psychotropic drug Mitragynine, commonly known as Kratom, found on a lab workbench and on a floor tile outside the entrance to an office.
Existing testing protocols remain in effect and additional cleaning steps have been adopted for scientists using work spaces, Weaver said.
“There have been no new discrepant [blood testing] results identified; the root cause of the contamination is still trying to be determined,” Weaver added.
Administrators assume contamination in the annex lab somehow traveled to the main lab, possibly by the air-handling system, lab officials have said.
More samples from Washington’s tox lab will be sent to NIST for its study, and the lab is planning an on-site assessment from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in November — the earliest the federal workplace safety agency could visit, Weaver said.
But while lab officials appear to be taking necessary workplace safety measures, they’ve done little to acknowledge or address potentially tainted blood evidence that could impact thousands of cases, defense lawyers say.
Adsero said he does not think the federal workplace safety agency “will be evaluating the evidentiary impact of the meth contamination impact on the lab’s work.”
“The lab’s refusal to take corrective action is problematic,” added Magda Baker of the Washington Defender Association, a group that assists public defenders statewide. “It indicates to me that they asked for the NIST study (perhaps to signify concern about contamination) without intending to take corrective action regardless of the study’s results.”
Thousands of cases
Adsero, Baker and other defense lawyers also have criticized the state’s previous disclosures about the contamination as misleading, vague and too slow, noting the contamination may have impacted thousands of cases, including some in which defendants already have been convicted.
Since March 2018, when the tox lab moved into the contaminated annex, the lab had performed testing on nearly 51,000 Washington cases and a combined 700 cases from Alaska and Oregon through mid-June of this year.
The lab has retroactively reviewed thousands of cases in which blood testing has detected meth — including more than 1,400 cases handled by the lab between July 2020 and late January disclosed on Friday — finding no discrepancies in results.
But internal documents about the tox lab’s contamination and expert testimony have helped at least three defendants with meth detected in their blood, all of whom deny using the drug, beat impaired-driving charges. A judge in a Pierce County case ruled in March that the tox lab’s testing in a contaminated area amounted to “gross governmental mismanagement.”
Janine Arvizu, a nationally recognized chemist and certified laboratory-quality auditor, testified in the Pierce County case that blood tubes opened in the meth-contaminated tox lab are susceptible to airborne contamination. If that happens, scientists wouldn’t be able to catch discrepancies in results through confirmation tests later, she said.
Among the State Patrol’s legal disclosures this month was a King County public defender’s motion to dismiss or exclude blood tests in a pending DUI case in Seattle.
The disclosed motion, sent Aug. 10 to the Washington Defender Association by a state prosecutors group, highlighted defense allegations that Dr. Brianna Peterson, the tox lab’s former acting manager, had presented false testimony in the Pierce County case and in a generic declaration still used by prosecutors about the lab’s contamination.
A letter accompanying the disclosed motion from the State Patrol’s Office of Professional Standards — the bureau that oversees internal investigations of WSP employees — noted additional information “will be provided as it becomes available.”
A WSP spokesperson said he was not able to comment by press time on the disclosure involving Peterson, who left the lab for another job in June and has since declined to comment about her past statements.