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Drug lab will reduce its caseload

December 19, 2000

Drug lab will reduce its caseload



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - West Virginia State Police say they will try to cut down on the number of cases they handle in their drug lab in the aftermath of a September investigation that shut it down.

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Col. Gary Edgell, State Police superintendent, has drafted guidelines for prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement agencies to submit evidence. Seeking to cut the caseload, State Police will accept evidence only to secure a conviction. The lab was shut amidst allegations that evidence was tainted.

Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely said the new guidelines don't mean a great deal.

"You only seek testing of evidence you want for a conviction," said Games-Neely. "When you arrest somebody for drugs, you do a ... field test, which gives you probable cause. You send it to the lab for testing because in court you have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt."

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Berkeley County sends hundreds of drug samples to the lab for testing annually, she said. Because of the heavy amount of drug activity locally, she is unlikely to change her requests for testing.

"We will continue to operate as we have," she said. "We're part of a drug corridor here. We have a lot of volume going through here."

Sgt. Michael Corsaro, spokesman for the State Police, said the lab has spent too much time processing cases that did not yield results necessary for prosecution.

Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have left the lab, but continue to help State Police retest cases, Edgell said. Five employees, including three troopers, were suspended with pay as federal law enforcement officials investigated the lab.

During the FBI investigation, which is continuing, DEA agents helped reduce a backlog of more than 700 cases to about 400.

Martinsburg attorney Kevin Mills said he has filed motions in court asking that dozens of cases be retried in which his clients were found guilty of drug violations.

In the only case decided by a court, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Kaull of Clarksburg ruled that Mills' client could not prove the evidence in his case was tainted. But the court ordered the evidence, if it still exists, held for future possible testing. Mills said he will appeal the ruling.

"We don't know the extent of the damage (to his clients) because we haven't been involved" in the investigation or the drug lab, Mills said. The state chapter of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers may pursue involvement in the investigation depending on how Mills does with his cases, he said.

Games-Neely said she has made sure to preserve evidence that can't be tested now so she'll have it when the situation is resolved. That may take legislative action, she said.

"They are very busy people," she said of the drug lab. "They're doing the best they can with what they've got. I think it's more a legislative question of funding than anything. We've been saying for a long time they should either fund it at the right level or shut it down."

Five employees remain in the drug lab, Edgell said. Three troopers who had been moved to other sections of the lab have returned and two chemists have been hired.

- The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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