Pubdate: Tue, 01 Nov 2005
Source: Journal Gazette, The (IN)
Copyright: 2005 The Journal Gazette
Author: Sara Eaton


Mistake On Form Follows Mold Discovery

A low-level drug charge against a Decatur man has been dismissed 
after evidence was destroyed by the Indiana State Police lab before 
the trial. State police blamed the error on a miscommunication and 
said it was an isolated occurrence.

The destroyed evidence comes on the heels of the discovery of mold 
growing at the Fort Wayne lab on biological evidence from five cases 
- -- one homicide and four sexual assaults. The mold discovery led a 
forensics expert to question the lab's competence.

Stephen A. Huffine, 43, of the 300 block of Roeville Road in Decatur, 
had been scheduled for trial in Adams Superior Court on Oct. 24 on a 
possession of marijuana charge, but Adams County Chief Deputy 
Prosecutor Tracy Noetzel filed a motion to dismiss the case Oct. 21.

The motion said the evidence was "inadvertently destroyed by the 
Indiana State Police Laboratory and the state is unable to pursue this matter."

Judge James A. Heimann granted the request and dismissed the case.

Huffine's case had been pending for nearly 18 months. He was arrested 
in August 2004 after a state trooper stopped him for speeding on 
Indiana 101. Shortly before being pulled over, Huffine tossed 
something from his car, which the trooper retrieved and found to be a 
bag of marijuana, according to court records.

Lab employees destroyed the evidence in Huffine's case after reading 
a supplemental report written by the trooper, where he had checked 
off a box indicating that the evidence was of no value and could be 
destroyed, said Sgt. Rodger Popplewell, state police spokesman.

In an attempt to make paperwork more useful to the troopers, state 
police used a new form for a few days that contributed to the 
miscommunication, Popplewell said. The paperwork, which had been used 
for only a few days, gave troopers a list of options with boxes to be 
checked off, including one that stated evidence was of no value and 
could be destroyed, he said.

Officials found the paperwork created more confusion and reverted to 
using the old forms, which require the trooper to write in his or her 
own words what should happen to the evidence, Popplewell said.

In Huffine's case, the box ordering the destruction of the evidence 
was checked accidentally and the lab believed it was OK to destroy 
it, Popplewell said.

No other cases were affected by the new forms, he said.

Popplewell said the evidence in the Huffine case had been analyzed 
and the results could have been used in court. The prosecutors could 
have also used testimony related to the testing of the evidence, he said.

Huffine's attorney, Don Swanson, was not available for comment Monday.

Allen County defense attorney Michelle F. Kraus said she has heard of 
cases where evidence was destroyed prematurely, but in this case the 
marijuana was a key element for the prosecution. She said the 
prosecutor should be commended for dismissing the case.

The dismissal of Huffine's case came less than a week after the same 
lab confronted problems with mold growing on biological evidence.

About two weeks ago, the trial in a high-profile Allen County sexual 
assault case had to be continued because mold was growing on 
biological evidence gathered in the case. The mold was growing on 
biological evidence from four other cases as well, but Popplewell 
said none was affected by it, meaning there was enough evidence left 
to extract valuable samples.

A forensic science consultant from California, Ed Blake, questioned 
the lab's competence after hearing about the mold. He compared the 
problem to food growing moldy in the refrigerator, adding that mold 
can grow only in a moist environment and that the first rule of 
forensic science is to dry out evidence before storing it.

Popplewell said the lab's competence should not be questioned and the 
recent problems should not concern anyone "because of the number of 
cases they handle annually."

Popplewell said the lab processes evidence from about 3,000 cases a 
year, and each case may contain many pieces of evidence.

"They are professional and very thorough in their work," he said, 
adding that lab employees are competent.

But repeated mistakes give defense attorneys ammunition against the 
lab and prosecutors, Kraus said.

"It opens the door to question the competency (of the lab)," Kraus said.

Typically during jury trials, Kraus stipulates to lab employees' 
educational backgrounds and testing procedures to spare jurors from 
generally boring testimony and accepted information by the attorneys. 
The recent problems at the lab may change that practice, she said.

"You can no longer presume (testing) was done correctly," Kraus said. 
"If you are doing your job as a defense attorney, you can't ignore it."

She agrees the number of cases processed by the lab is a contributing 
factor, but unlike Popplewell, Kraus believes the lab may be 
overwhelmed by the amount of evidence to be processed.

In the end, the problems could cost taxpayers more, she said.

Reviewing lab procedures in each case means public defenders must 
take more depositions from lab employees -- taking away from their 
time in the lab and adding to the expense of the public defense, she said.
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