HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html WSP Drug Lab Taint Lets Felon Withdraw Guilty Plea
Pubdate: Sat, 31 Mar 2001
Source: Herald, The (WA)
Copyright: 2001 The Daily Herald Co.
Author:  Scott North, Herald Writer


A convicted drug trafficker was allowed to withdraw a guilty plea
Friday as part of the expanding legal turmoil surrounding a former
Washington State Patrol chemist's admission that he pilfered drugs
sent to his lab for tests.

Robert Blackburn is serving a year in the Snohomish County Jail for
conspiring to sell marijuana and for possession of

He struck a plea agreement with prosecutors, and was sentenced in

On Friday, however, Everett lawyer Mark Mestel argued that Blackburn's
guilty plea was unjust because his client had pleaded guilty believing
prosecutors could prove that police had found methamphetamine in his

The key evidence was supplied by Michael R. Hoover, 51, of Edmonds,
then a forensic chemist at the patrol's crime lab in Marysville.

Hoover has since resigned from the job and is facing two misdemeanor
charges of tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct.
He was charged after reportedly admitting in December that he had been
ingesting heroin for several months to ease his back pain, according
to court papers.

"Had the state discovered the chemist's inappropriate conduct before
the defendant pled guilty, it would have disclosed this to the
defense," Mestel wrote in court papers.

"The state, most likely, would not have been able to prove the nature
of the substance beyond a reasonable doubt, and the defendant would
not have pled guilty."

Mestel told Judge David Hulbert that it would constitute an injustice
to let his client's conviction stand on tainted evidence.

Deputy prosecutor Craig Bray argued that Blackburn knew what he was
doing when he pleaded guilty.

"The mere fact that we've developed a witness problem seven months
later doesn't give him the right to withdraw his guilty plea," Bray

The judge disagreed. He allowed Blackburn to withdraw his plea and
said prosecutors can call Hoover to testify about his crime-lab tests
if they decide to take the case to trial and try for a conviction. If
they don't, they'll have to dismiss the charge.

Meanwhile, Blackburn remains locked up on his other drug conviction,
which did not involve evidence handled by Hoover.

Mestel said he represents nearly a half-dozen other clients who are
exploring similar plea-withdrawal motions. The chemist's alleged
misconduct is affecting drug cases in seven Western Washington
counties, and up to 200 dismissals are expected in Snohomish County
alone, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors have for weeks been dropping pending drug cases because of
Hoover-related concerns.

"In fairness, I think they should cut these people a break," Mestel
said of defendants who already have pleaded guilty, believing the
evidence against them was untainted.

Hoover's attorney, Steve Garvey of Everett, said he expects to see
numerous similar pitches.

"There is going to be a whole raft of these," he said. "Every
defendant whose case has been touched by Mike Hoover is going to try
to get their case overturned. I certainly understand why they are
doing that. They have nothing to risk."

Hoover is negotiating with prosecutors, and a plea is likely before
trial, now set for mid-April, Garvey said.

Hoover faces up to a year in jail for each count, and "contrary to the
information that television reporters seem to manufacture out of thin
air, Mike is going to see the inside of a jail cell," Garvey added.

Hoover came under investigation after co-workers became concerned
about his insistence on handling heroin cases. Patrol detectives
installed a hidden camera near his work area and say they documented
him repeatedly taking heroin from evidence that had been sent to the
crime lab.

When confronted with the tapes Dec. 22, Hoover allegedly told
detectives that he hadn't intended to begin using heroin, but
accidentally sniffed concentrated, crystalline dust left over from an
evidence test. He said there was immediate relief from his back pain,
and he regularly began sniffing small amounts of heroin that he'd
purified in the laboratory, documents show.
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