LAPD Uncovers Botched Evidence by Police Chemist; 972 Cases to be Re-Examined
A Los Angeles police chemist botched evidence in 47 narcotics cases, leading to a review of all 972 drug cases he handled, according to authorities.
The errors have prompted inquires by both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and raised questions about the credibility of Jeff Lowe, who has analyzed drugs for the LAPD since May 2003.
The Los Angeles County public defender's office has demanded from prosecutors a complete list of cases in which Lowe analyzed evidence. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, whose office learned of the problem in March, has yet to decide whether to comply.
The problems at the LAPD crime lab follow by a decade the O.J. Simpson murder case, when the lab was harshly criticized for how it collected and stored evidence. The revelations also come at a particularly inopportune time for law enforcement officials across Los Angeles County, who are trying to persuade voters to approve a tax increase to support local police.
Crime lab supervisors believe the discrepancies were inadvertent and may have been caused by Lowe's failure to weigh the drugs separately from the containers in which they were seized. Nevertheless, the district attorney's office has urged its prosecutors not to rely on Lowe's calculations.
Lowe, 33, was removed from casework, retrained and tested for competency, but is now back on the job as one of 10 criminalists in the narcotics analysis unit. Lowe started at the crime lab in 2000 and analyzed blood and urine evidence before moving to narcotics. Reached at the lab Wednesday, Lowe declined to comment.
Prosecutors do not believe any criminal cases have been compromised as a result of Lowe's errors. But defense attorneys disagree. And LAPD officials said other criminalists have reviewed evidence and testified in at least three cases.
One defense attorney, David Kaloyanides, said he will probably file a motion for new trial based on Lowe's errors. Lowe testified as an expert witness last year against Phillip Rawl, leading to a conviction on one count of gross vehicular manslaughter and two counts of drunk driving. Rawl faces a possible sentence of 14 years on those charges. Juries also twice deadlocked on a charge of vehicular murder; prosecutors are set to retry Rawl on that count.
Kaloyanides learned of Lowe's errors last week and notified Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus, who ordered prosecutors to turn over information about cases handled by Lowe. Marcus has scheduled a hearing for next week on the issues surrounding Lowe.
"Any time you have law enforcement not doing their job accurately, it undermines the potential legitimacy of the evidence they want to present," Kaloyanides said.
The district attorney's office has scheduled a meeting for today to discuss the issues involving Lowe.
Prosecutors are required to give the defense information in their possession that could be used to impeach a government witness, such as a police officer or coroner.
Some prosecutors believe the errors undermine Lowe's expertise and therefore should be disclosed to the defense.
"An argument could be made that this evidence indicates that chemist Lowe is a 'careless' and/or 'incompetent' scientist," Jacquelyn Lacey, director of central operations for the district attorney's office, wrote in an internal memo in June.
But others in the office argue against disclosure because Lowe's errors dealt with the weight rather than the identity of the drugs. They describe the errors as neither intentional nor malicious.
Defense attorney Gigi Gordon, who represents defendants allegedly victimized by police corruption, said prosecutors are obligated to turn over the information if they know Lowe made even one mistake.
"The courts have told them again and again that, if there is any question in their minds, they should turn it over," she said. "It's shocking to me that there would even be a discussion about it."
The problems with Lowe came to his supervisors' attention after a judge ordered drug evidence in one case to be re-weighed. The district attorney's office declined to file charges in that case, based on insufficiency of the evidence.
Two other criminalists at the lab then reviewed a sample of 10 of Lowe's cases. After discovering another miscalculation, they expanded the review to every piece of evidence analyzed by Lowe from May 2003 to January 2004. Altogether, the criminalists re-weighed 1,438 pieces of evidence.
"During this review, it was discovered that the court-ordered re-weighing was not an isolated incident," Commanding Officer Steven B. Johnson, who heads the crime lab, wrote in a letter to the district attorney's office.
The LAPD found more weight discrepancies and sent 27 corrections to prosecutors. But according to the internal district attorney's office memo, prosecutors believe there were an additional 20 suspect cases. Most of the cases did not involve large-scale drug trafficking, but rather street-level arrests for possession, possession for sale or sale of narcotics, Johnson said.
Laura Green, a division chief at the Los Angeles County public defender's office, said the miscalculations not only could have affected what charges were filed, but also what sentences defendants received. Green said she had "severe questions" about Lowe's credibility during his entire time at the crime lab.
"This is a very serious situation because of the impact it could have on our clients," Green said. "It's somewhat bewildering to me that the D.A. can have this material and not turn it over."
Johnson said he could not recall the crime lab ever making errors in the weighing of narcotics. In some of Lowe's cases, he said the weight changes might have been due to the drugs drying out in storage.
"We jealously guard our reputation and make every effort to get things right," he said. "It's something we would have preferred not to happen. It happened, and we responded to it appropriately."
Ralph Keaton, executive director of the board that accredits labs throughout the nation, said the LAPD crime lab was inspected during a visit in December 2003 and that the laboratory has informed the board about the problems with Lowe.
Keaton said the board is continuing its inspection of LAPD's lab "related to their renewal of accreditation."