LAPD Uncovers Botched Evidence by Police Chemist; 972 Cases to be Re-Examined
By Anna Gorman, The Los Angeles Times
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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
"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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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
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.
said the board is continuing its inspection of LAPD's lab "related to
their renewal of accreditation."