Criminal lab error leads to six-month Hamilton County drug analysis audit

A drug testing error at the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office and the Crime Lab sparked an audit looking at six months of drug cases. The lab is housed in a new state-of-the-art building at Blue Ash that just opened last year. It is responsible for testing suspect drugs in criminal cases. An inaccurate result from a set of antacid pills tested in September 2021 led to an audit a year later. The investigation stems from a drug possession case in Springfield Township. In August 2021, Brian Freeman was stopped and searched by police at a gas station there. Freeman admits he’s not perfect. He has had run-ins with the law in the past and also faced a drug problem. But when police found orange Tums in his trouser pocket and suspected they were illegal drugs, he maintained his innocence for a full year. take them to the lab and have them tested,” he said. “They actually said Tums on the shelves.” The crime lab tested the pills in early September and reported that the drugs tested positive for cocaine. A warrant for Freeman’s arrest for drug possession was signed in late December 2021. Freeman did not know there was a warrant for his arrest until he was arrested with his family in the vehicle, including her 8-year-old grandson, just days into the new year. “I’m being arrested at gunpoint, grounded, saying I have a warrant for possession of cocaine,” Freeman said. He spent a week in prison before his family could get him out. He also lost his job as a roofer due to the charges against him. “I thought ‘I’m going to jail for sure’, because who usually gets away with this?” I said, “At first they wanted me to take addiction clinics and classes and advocate. And I said no. I am not guilty. On December 29, eight months after defense attorney Lynn Pundzak intervened, Freeman said Pundzak took her case pro bono. She fought to have the drugs retested. She sought help from the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office, which paid more than $1,200 to have an independent lab retest the drugs. The results were negative for any controlled substance. The judge assigned to the case ordered the county crime lab to retest and at that time the results from the crime lab also came back negative. “I was just touched by his story, and he was really trying to turn his life around. Although I was a little surprised when the results came back negative, I was awfully happy for him,” she said. declared. “The only reason this happened is because the public defender’s office was able and willing to fund an expensive, independent test here. And clearly that’s not feasible in every case where someone comes in and says it’s not drugs. It’s not It’s not illegal drugs.” John Kennedy is the director of the Felony Division of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office. “This is an issue that would shake anyone’s confidence,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s extremely unlikely that this is the only false positive test the Hamilton County Crime Lab has done.” Kennedy was also involved in a 2015 homicide case that led to a different audit at the crime lab in 2020. A man was charged with a homicide in North Avondale but acquitted after the crime lab did not not divulge a second DNA hit to the defense team. The Innocence Project filed a civil rights lawsuit that led to a significant settlement and audit of Cincinnati Police Department homicide cases involving DNA over a 7-year period. “The lab will maintain that these are isolated incidents, but their number raises a serious question,” Kennedy said. “I think they should check all the forensic evidence in this Hamilton County lab, whether it’s DNA or other evidence.” Crime lab officials have not said if there is a theory as to how the error occurred. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are performing an internal audit of the analyst’s file from three months before and three months after this particular case. This audit is still ongoing, and therefore there is no additional information to be released at this time,” Hamilton County Coroner’s Chief Administrator Andrea Hatten said in a statement. Emails between the coroner’s office and the prosecutor’s office show that the lab could not rule out the possibility of cross-contamination when the tests took place. Defense attorneys who spoke to WLWT on Thursday expressed concern about the scope of the audit and the possibility of additional inaccuracies in other tests. if you are a police officer, nobody wants tainted convictions and nobody wants erroneous results from our state-of-the-art crime lab,” Pundzak said. “We don’t really know if it was user error at this point or if it was a problem with their technology, and until we can figure that out, I think it would be wise to carry out a broader audit.”

A drug testing error at the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office and the Crime Lab sparked an audit looking at six months of drug cases.

The lab is housed in a new state-of-the-art building at Blue Ash that just opened last year. He is responsible for testing suspect drugs in criminal cases.

An inaccurate result from a set of antacid pills tested in September 2021 led to an audit a year later. The investigation stems from a drug possession case in Springfield Township. In August 2021, Brian Freeman was stopped and searched by police at a gas station.

Freeman admits he’s not perfect. He has had run-ins with the law in the past and also faced a drug problem. But when police found orange Tums in his trouser pocket and suspected they were illegal drugs, he maintained his innocence for an entire year.

“I was stopped, searched and they found Tums in my pocket in a bag, and said they were going to send them to the lab and have them tested,” he said. “They actually said Tums on the shelves.”

The crime lab tested the pills in early September and reported that the drugs tested positive for cocaine. A warrant for Freeman’s arrest for drug possession was signed in late December 2021.

Freeman didn’t know there was a warrant for his arrest until he was arrested with his family in the vehicle, including his 8-year-old grandson, just days after the start of the new Year.

“I was arrested at gunpoint, put down, said I had a warrant for possession of cocaine,” Freeman said.

He spent a week in prison before his family could get him out. He also lost his job as a roofer due to the charges against him.

“I thought ‘I’m going to jail for sure’, because who usually gets away with this?” I said, “At first they wanted me to go to addiction clinics and classes and plead. And I said no. I’m not guilty.”

His charges were dismissed in the interests of justice on August 28. 29, eight months after defense attorney Lynn Pundzak became involved.

Freeman said Pundzak took his case for free. She fought to have the drugs retested. She sought help from the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office, which paid more than $1,200 to have an independent lab retest the drugs.

The results came back denial of any controlled substance. The judge assigned to the case ordered the county crime lab to retest and at that time the results from the crime lab also came back negative.

“I was just touched by his story, and he was really trying to turn his life around. Although I was a little surprised when the results came back negative, I was awfully happy for him,” she said. declared. “The only reason this happened is because the public defender’s office was able and willing to fund an expensive, independent test here. And clearly that’s not feasible in every case where someone comes in and says it’s not medicine. It’s not it’s not illegal drugs.”

John Kennedy is the director of the Felony Division of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office.

“This is an issue that would shake anyone’s confidence,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s extremely unlikely that this is the only false positive test the Hamilton County Crime Lab has done.”

Kennedy was also involved in a 2015 homicide case which led to a different audit at the crime lab in 2020. A man was charged with a homicide in North Avondale but acquitted after the crime lab did not not divulge a second DNA hit to the defense team. The Innocence Project filed a civil rights lawsuit that led to a significant settlement and audit of Cincinnati Police Department homicide cases involving DNA over a 7-year period.

“The lab will maintain that these are isolated incidents, but their number raises a serious question,” Kennedy said. “I think they should check all the forensic evidence in this Hamilton County crime lab, whether it’s DNA or other traces.”

Crime lab officials have not said if there is a theory as to how the error occurred.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are performing an internal audit of the analyst’s file from three months before and three months after this particular case. This audit is still ongoing, and therefore there is no additional information to be released at this time,” Hamilton County Coroner’s Chief Administrator Andrea Hatten said in a statement.

Emails between the coroner’s office and the prosecutor’s office show that the lab could not rule out the possibility of cross-contamination at the time of testing.

Defense attorneys who spoke to WLWT on Thursday expressed concern about the scope of the audit and the possibility of additional inaccuracies in other tests.

“I don’t think it makes a difference whether you’re on the prosecution side or the defense side or if you’re a police officer, nobody wants tainted convictions and nobody wants erroneous results from our state-of-the-art crime lab,” Pundzak said. “We’re not sure if it was user error at this point or if it was a problem with their technology, and until we can figure that out, I think it would be wise to do a broader audit.”