The justice system in San Francisco has taken a major blow as Deborah Madden, a 60-year-old woman and worker at the San Francisco crime lab for 29 years, has jeopardized hundreds of past convictions after being implicated in skimming cocaine from the lab. Jim Morris, former head of the lab, stated, “I don’t think we have a full grasp of the magnitude of this yet. A lot of (criminal justice) relies on trust that the lab results have been correct, but now people don’t think they are. So the whole system has been grinded to a halt.” The scandal has already resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of cases and implicates thousands more. Many expect this to start a push by prisoners to have their convictions overturned as police admit that they are legally required to disclose Ms. Madden’s conviction to defense lawyers.
Ms. Madden claims that she only snorted small amounts of cocaine that spilled at her workstation. However, she has had several personal issues in the past ranging from a domestic violence and vandalism conviction in 2008 to time in an alcohol rehabilitation center to being accused of intentionally sabotaging cases by calling in sick on days she was to testify in court. Additionally, after an internal audit, investigators discovered significant amounts of drug evidence missing in some of Ms. Madden’s cases. She explained this though saying that weight discrepancies occur frequently at the lab. Fred Tullener, a former California Department of Justice crime lab manager, describes the facility as, “A converted warehouse in the middle of nowhere on a toxic waste dump.” This, taken together, cast a dark cloud on the credibility of the search for justice in San Francisco.
Similar events to this have happened in major cities such as Detroit and Houston, resulting in millions in damages paid to those found guilty on evidence overturned and, in Detroit’s case, the lab being shut down entirely. Ralph Keaton, the executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, paints a grim picture for San Francisco’s future: “It’s real hard to build a good reputation and it’s very easy to destroy it. And it takes even longer to rebuild it.”