Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Report: Indiana toxicology lab woes go back 7 years

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Errors in evidence testing that raise questions about possible wrongful convictions go back at least three years more than had been previously reported, according to new emails obtained from the Indiana State Department of Toxicology.

The Indianapolis Star reported Tuesday that about 2,000 emails it obtained from the lab show the agency was beset by incorrect test results from 2004 to 2006. A current audit of the lab’s work is covering only 2007 to 2009.

The lab tests blood and urine samples for evidence in criminal cases. The emails obtained by The Star show inadequate staffing and funding produced an environment in the lab ripe for errors, including the kind that could lead to people being denied justice, or escaping it.

The emails are correspondence to and from Peter Method, who served as the acting director of the department from 2003 to 2008. They suggest benign neglect on the part of the Indiana University School of Medicine, which did not authorize an audit of test results until 2008, at least four years after the first testing errors were reported by email.

One of the most telling notes was written by the lab’s supervisor in November 2006 to Method and Method’s supervisor, Michael Vasko, chair of the medical school’s Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology.

“I never had this (happen), error after error. ... I guess if this is acceptable to you and the department, then I don’t have to worry. If an error occurs again in the future, I won’t bother you anymore,” the supervisor wrote.

The audit has already shown the lab sent out, on average, a flawed marijuana result every 3.28 days and a false positive marijuana result once every 18 days.

Among the more important revelations from the email correspondence are IU allowed the lab to languish under Method from 2003 to 2008, even though he acknowledged he was underqualified for the job.

They also show that while Method reported to Vasko, IU said Vasko’s job was merely broad “administrative oversight” — leaving the lab to Method as problems mounted.

Based on the emails alone, The Star found documentation of 26 bad test results from 2004 to 2006 that were reported to law enforcement.

Of those, 12 were false positives — findings that might have compromised the rights of Indiana residents. The other 14 were false negatives that might have prevented law enforcement from charging guilty people.

One of the false negatives stood out. In June 2006, the lab issued a negative test result for a driver involved in a crash that killed a person, but the prosecutor in the case was convinced the test result was wrong. The results were rechecked, and the driver was found to have cocaine and opiates in his system.

It was unclear how many other flawed test results were not detected, the newspaper reported.

Vasko declined to comment Tuesday, directing calls to IU spokesman Larry MacIntyre, who said problems at the lab were due, in part, to years of underfunding by the state Legislature. But he said having the medical school operate the department “may not be the best working model for administering the toxicology lab.”

MacIntyre disagreed, however, with the characterization that the medical school — and namely Vasko — failed to provide adequate oversight or that it didn’t take the work and problems at the lab seriously.

He said Method is no longer employed by IU, and a telephone listing for Method could not be found in the Indianapolis area.

Pat Arata, a prominent DWI attorney from Fort Wayne, said IU turned its back on the school’s pioneering history in breath-alcohol detection by not doing a better job with the state toxicology department.

“They didn’t do anything about the problems that people were calling to their attention, so we’ve had to put up with ‘junk science’ for a long time,” Arata said.

The emails reveal that problems were present at least four years before the 2008 arrival of Michael Wagner, the former director who says he was forced to resign last year amid complaints and a long backlog of cases. Wagner said he raised the lab’s standards but has been made the scapegoat by IU and others who knew problems predated his arrival.

 

Posted 5/19/2011

 

 

 

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