OH: Crime lab error leads to six month audit of drug analysis in Hamilton County

The suspect was charged with felony drug possession. He was adamant the pills were antacid.

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

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

An inaccurate result from a set of pills tested in September 2021 has led to an audit one year later. The investigation stems from a drug possession case out of Springfield Township. In August 2021, a man was arrested during a traffic stop with multiple orange pills in his pocket. He told police the pills were antacid, but police believed they may have been an illegal substance.

The crime lab tested the pills in early September and reported the drugs were positive for cocaine.

The suspect was charged with felony drug possession. He was adamant the pills were antacid.

His defense attorney, Lynn Pundzak, took over the case at the beginning of 2021. She fought to have the drugs retested. She enlisted the help of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office, which paid more than $1,200 for an independent lab to re-test the drugs.

The results came back negation for any controlled substance. The judge overseeing the case ordered the county crime lab to rerun the test and at that time, the crime lab’s results also came back negative.

“I just was touched by his story, and he really was trying to make a change to his life. Although I might have been a little surprised when the results came back negative, I was awfully happy for him,” she said. “The only reason this occurred is because the public defender’s office was able and willing to fund an expensive, independent test here. And clearly, that’s not doable in each and every case where someone comes in and says those aren’t drugs. Those aren’t illegal drugs.”

Officials with the crime lab would not say who is overseeing the audit or if there is a theory as to how the error happened.

In a statement, Hamilton County Coroner Chief Administrator Andrea Hatten said, “Out of an abundance of caution, we are performing an internal audit of the analyst’s casework dating 3 months prior and 3 months following this particular case. That audit is still ongoing, and therefore, there is no additional information to release at this time.”

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

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

“I don’t think it makes any difference as to whether you’re on the prosecution side or the defense side or if you’re a police officer, no one wants tainted convictions and no one wants erroneous results coming out of our state-of-the-art crime lab,” Pundzak said. “We don’t really know whether this was user error at this point or if this was an issue with their technology, and until we can figure that out I think it would be wise to have a more broad-reaching audit performed.”

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