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St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell speaks to the Editorial Board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

Editor's note: This story was updated at noon to include a comment from Ankoor Shah, the attorney for Kevin Fields.

CLAYTON — At least 100 criminal cases in St. Louis County involving DNA evidence are coming under review because of a pattern of improper analysis in the police department’s crime lab by a forensic scientist who was fired in 2017, the chief of staff for Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said Tuesday.

Crime lab supervisors had identified problems with DNA analysis by the scientist more than two years ago, when Robert P. McCulloch was the prosecuting attorney.

Bell’s chief of staff, Sam Alton, said Tuesday that after Bell’s defeat of McCulloch last year, Bell’s staff was not made aware there were cases in which the crime lab employee’s work could be called into question.

Alton said Bell’s staff first became aware of the problem on Oct. 9, during a meeting between one of their attorneys and crime lab personnel. Officials in the crime lab provided Bell’s staff with a July 2016 letter that the lab had sent to McCulloch’s office. The letter said an audit had found the lab to be in compliance with FBI standards and the police department did not think there was a “systemic issue” beyond the one scientist.

But the lab said it would reanalyze any cases that involved the scientist, which could “result in updates” to the analysis.

Alton said one senior attorney in Bell’s office, who had worked under McCulloch, knew there had been an issue with the scientist’s DNA work, but did not understand the significance. Alton would not identify that attorney.

McCulloch said in a voice message to a Post-Dispatch reporter on Tuesday that “they’re saying I did something wrong is just another lie made up by the Alton-Bell crowd to cover their own misdeeds.”

It was not clear why crime lab officials raised the issue in the Oct. 9 meeting with the attorney in Bell’s office, Portia Britt. A police department spokeswoman said it’s common for prosecutors to meet with crime lab personnel. The fired scientist was also fighting for her job back and was scheduled to have a hearing before the police board; details on those proceedings were not publicly available.

The issue concerning the scientist would have been fresh on the mind of a crime lab supervisor who was in the meeting. Only days before, supervisor Kyra Groeblinghoff had disclosed problems with the scientist’s DNA analysis during a deposition in a murder case.

The Sept. 27 deposition had been taken by the defense attorney in a first-degree murder case against Kevin Fields, who had been scheduled to face trial on Monday on the accusation that he fatally stabbed Tami Allen in her home in Moline Acres on Feb. 4, 2016.

Through questioning, public defender Ankoor Shah revealed that Groeblinghoff and other crime lab supervisors had raised concerns about possible professional misconduct by the scientist, who had also analyzed DNA evidence in his client’s case.

Groeblinghoff testified that the scientist had repeatedly violated the lab’s policy by comparing DNA reference samples side-by-side with crime scene evidence, creating a “cognitive bias” that could create a false impression of a match.

“You start to see their peaks, all throughout the profile, that could lead you to change your mind and decide, well, maybe this isn’t such a terrible mixture, maybe I can do something with it,” Groeblinghoff testified.

After the deposition, Shah sought the dismissal of Fields’ murder case. The discovery “opened up a whole can of worms,” Shah told Circuit Judge Brian H. May in a hearing on Oct. 1.

He told the judge that Fields’ lawyers had never been told there could be some reason to question the scientist’s contribution to the case.

“This is a discovery violation and the failure to investigate and then disclose,” Shah said. Prosecutors told the judge that the only evidence the scientist analyzed was before Fields had been identified as a suspect, and that the scientist could not have had any such bias because she had no prior knowledge about Fields.

May denied Shah’s motion to dismiss and ordered prosecutors to disclose all DNA evidence in Fields’ case that the scientist “touched, manipulated or analyzed.” The judge also ordered the lab to retest the DNA evidence that the scientist handled.

And he also restricted Shah’s ability to question the scientist and a crime lab supervisor in further depositions. Shah has appealed those prohibitions to the state Supreme Court; the trial has been postponed until at least early next year.

In his message, McCulloch said had been told the crime lab had already retested the DNA and “it came out in all honesty even stronger evidence against Kevin Fields.” His claim could not be confirmed late Tuesday.

“The only problem was this gal refused to follow some new protocol that was put out by the national association of labs ...,” he said. “She got fired over that and tried to get her job back.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Shah said he strongly disagrees with McCulloch that the DNA evidence was worse for Fields. And he said "more can and should be done to be more transparent about (the scientist) and other possible systemic issues in the St. Louis County crime lab."

McCulloch also pointed to what he saw as a conflict of interest: Alton’s wife, attorney Julia Fogelberg, had represented Fields as a public defender until she joined her husband in Bell’s administration late last year.

Alton said he didn’t know his wife had been on the other side of the case until a reporter pointed it out to him. He said it had no significance. Fogelberg said it had been up to Fields and his new attorney to decide whether they felt there was a conflict when she moved to Bell’s office, and they didn’t seek to move the case to another jurisdiction.

On Tuesday, Alton emailed all the attorneys in Bell’s office asking them to check if they had cases involving evidence that had been analyzed by the scientist, and to notify Bell’s top assistants and the defense attorneys on the case.

He said he did not know how many cases would be affected, but said it was at least 100.

In all pending cases, the judge will be asked to require retesting of all relevant evidence; closed cases will be reviewed by Bell’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

“We’re concerned about the integrity of the cases,” Alton said.

But McCulloch said it was “another lie set up by these two to cover their own inability to handle this particular job and divert everyone away from the mess they’ve made of the budget and all the finances in the office.”

Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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