San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris on Friday said her office had until recently been in the dark about problems in the city's crime lab that the police department had known about. An evidence-tampering scandal that erupted in March and prompted the closing of the crime lab's narcotics unit has prompted prosecutors to drop about 550 narcotics cases.
In particular, Harris said the DA's office had not been aware that Deborah Madden, a former criminalist at the lab who frequently testified in drug cases and has been the central figure in the scandal so far, had a 2008 misdemeanor domestic violence conviction in San Mateo.
"As the police chief has said and said weeks ago, that information was not given to us," Harris said.
In November, Sharon Woo, Harris' narcotics chief, wrote an e-mail to Russell Giuntini, the chief assistant district attorney, and Jeffrey Ross, Harris' criminal division chief, about a shortage of criminalists at the drug lab and about Madden being undependable about showing up for court testimony. "The situation at the crime lab is becoming ridiculous," Woo said in the e-mail.
On Friday, Harris said she hadn't seen that memo until late February.
"Based on everything that we know, there is nothing that leads me to believe that anyone in my office knew or had reason to know of any substance abuse or evidence tampering issues on behalf of anyone in the police department at the time that that memo was issued," she said.
Asked why Woo's concerns about Madden hadn't been communicated to the police department, Harris said, "Hindsight is 20-20.
"Had everyone known at the time that lab technician was failing to show up in court, that she had a substance abuse issue and had been convicted of a [misdemeanor], I'm certain that the response and the communication would have been different," she said.
Asked whether Giuntini had briefed her on Woo's memo or mentioned Madden's name to her, Harris said she wouldn't talk about personnel issues.
Also on Friday, Harris that the state attorney general's office has agreed to take over any prosecution that might come out of the police investigation of the crime lab, since members of the San Francisco DA's office might be called to testify. Harris said she hopes that police investigation will be complete by mid-May.
Harris also said she has recently implemented a written policy for her office on discovery.
"It's the law, and we've been following the law, but this puts it in writing so there's no ambiguity," she said.
A spokesman for the DA's office declined to provide a copy of the written policy to The Recorder, saying it's an internal document and not for public consumption.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo, who has been hearing discovery motions in about 60 joined narcotics cases related to the crime lab, has urged the DA's office to make early decisions to dismiss cases if prosecutors can't meet their Brady obligations.
Harris said the office will continue to meet its discovery obligations as the investigation nets new information, but that she was loathe to drop salvageable cases.
"I am not about to throw up my hands and dismiss a bunch of cases that we might be able to prove," she said.
The DA also called for an independent narcotics testing program -- one that is outside of the police department -- and said she is working on legislation to make tampering with evidence in a crime lab by a civilian employee of a police department an automatic felony punishable by state prison.