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Lab closure affects cases

September 19, 2000

Lab closure affects cases



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The closing of the West Virginia State Police drug lab in Charleston, W.Va., because of improper procedures in handling evidence could cause dangerous criminals to be released, said Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely.

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"This lab closure could affect many, many cases," said Games-Neely.

"If this goes back as far as five or six years, you're talking about thousands of cases," Games-Neely said. "They haven't given us a time frame. We've got people in jail now and their trials are coming up. It's going to be a nightmare," she said.

Michael Thompson, Jefferson County's prosecutor, said he will stop sending drug cases to the grand jury until the problem is straightened out. He said his office doesn't have the resources to hire private labs to test drugs in criminal cases and without the tests there can be no proof that drugs were even involved.

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Games-Neely concurred. "It could cost the counties up to $5,000 to hire private labs in each case and that doesn't include the cost of getting testimony on the lab reports," she said.

State Police announced the lab had been closed in a Sept. 14 news release that said "certain inconsistencies were discovered within the drug section of the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory."

The release said nothing about the agency's decision to put five employees - including three troopers - on administrative leave while the investigation is under way.

The investigation began when the drug lab manager reported a lab worker's complaint about a co-worker to State Police Superintendent Gary Edgell.

"There were some discrepancies. Colonel Edgell immediately called me and told me of the discrepancies and that he wanted the FBI to investigate," state Military Affairs Secretary Otis Cox said Monday.

The FBI began an investigation the day after the lab was closed Sept. 7, leaving federal and state prosecutors scrambling to find out whether any of their criminal cases will be affected by the shutdown, he said.

Cox said he does not know how many cases might be affected by the closure of the lab, which processes evidence collected by federal, state and local police agencies. It also is not yet clear how long the problem has existed. But he called the investigation serious.

"When you do anything with any kind of evidence that's not proper procedure, it's serious," Cox said.

Neither state police nor the FBI would identify the discrepancies.

The drug lab, which is in South Charleston, is the State Police's only such lab in the state and is used by city, state and federal police.

Jefferson County's Thompson said while the federal government prosecutes most of the big drug cases in the Eastern Panhandle, local, county and state police handle cases which come up when individuals are pulled over for traffic violations and drugs are found in the car.

Thompson said he gets 30 to 35 local cases each year.

Games-Neely had more dire warnings about what could happen if the lab does not resume operations quickly.

She said half of the cases she is prosecuting need evidence from the lab. "We can't keep the defendants in jail. Some are extremely dangerous and we have no way of keeping those from out of state in the county. They're going to disappear."

She said the day could come "when we'll just have to open the cell doors."

Games-Neely said convicted defendants serving time could seek new trials claiming tainted evidence.

She said it's her belief that if the discrepancies are minor in nature.

She and Thompson said police still have to make drug arrests, even if the lab stays closed. "We just can't let open-air drug markets go on," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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