Crime lab scandal rocked Kamala Harris' term as San Francisco district attorney

The Washington Post

Kamala Harris was this city's top prosecutor, running to become California's elected attorney general, when a scandal stunned her office and threatened to upend her campaign.

One of Harris' top deputies had emailed a colleague that a crime-lab technician had become "increasingly UNDEPENDABLE for testimony." Weeks later, the technician allegedly took home cocaine from the lab, possibly tainting evidence and raising concerns about hundreds of cases.

Neither Harris nor the prosecutors working for her had informed defense attorneys of the problems - despite rules requiring such disclosure. Harris "failed to disclose information that clearly should have been disclosed," Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo wrote in a scathing decision in May 2010.

At first, Harris fought back. She blamed the police for failing to inform defense lawyers. She estimated that only about 20 cases initially would be affected. And her office accused the judge of bias because Massullo's husband was a defense lawyer.

But the turmoil increased. With the local criminal-justice system at risk of devolving into chaos, Harris took the extraordinary step of dismissing about 1,000 drug-related cases, including many in which convictions had been obtained and sentences were being served.

Now this episode, which undercut Harris' image as a polished leader and raised questions about her management style, has taken on new relevance as the senator seeks the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Casting herself as a "progressive prosecutor" who was concerned for the rights of defendants, Harris has highlighted her seven-year tenure as San Francisco's top law enforcement official as evidence of how she balanced her roles.

Harris' opponent in the Democratic primary for attorney general, former Facebook general counsel Chris Kelly, said at the time that the ruling showed Harris had "systematically violated defendants' civil and constitutional rights" because her office hid "damaging information about a police drug lab technician and was indifferent to demands that it account for its failings." Kelly declined to comment.

A review of the case, based on court records and interviews with key players, presents a portrait of Harris scrambling to manage a crisis that her staff saw coming but for which she was unprepared. It also shows how Harris, after six years as district attorney, had failed to put in place written guidelines for ensuring that defendants were informed about potentially tainted evidence and testimony that could lead to unfair convictions.

Harris, in an interview with The Washington Post, stressed that the crime lab was run by the police. But she took responsibility for the failings, including that she had not developed a written policy so that her office would notify defendants about problems with witnesses and evidence, as required by law.

"No excuses," Harris said, sitting in a small, windowless office near the U.S. Capitol. "The buck stops with me."

One of the most important players in the case was Jeff Adachi, the city's elected public defender, who was at odds with the way Harris handled the scandal.

"When all that happened, I think she was slow to respond," Adachi said, while not blaming Harris directly. Some of the attorneys in Harris' office "knew it was a problem and never informed us, the defense, that there was a problem with this."

Adachi spoke at his office in an hour-long interview with The Post nine days before he died on Feb. 22.

Adachi and Harris were old friends from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. But for much of 2010, the crime lab scandal pitted them against each other. Harris was elected district attorney in 2003 and reelected in 2007. As a candidate for attorney general, she stressed that she had simultaneously pushed criminal-justice reforms while also being tough on violent crime.

Following state guidelines, her office had pursued thousands of cases against drug offenders, an unpopular position among many in liberal San Francisco. Those cases depended on evidence examined by the city's understaffed crime lab, whose technicians regularly testified in court when Harris' prosecutors went to trial.

Deborah Madden was one of three lab workers. The city's police department knew that Madden had been convicted for her role in a 2007 domestic altercation in which she threw a phone that injured another person. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of probation and prohibited from possessing alcohol or a firearm. She was temporarily suspended from working at a crime lab.

Separately, Sharon Woo, an assistant district attorney working for Harris, became concerned that Madden wasn't showing up to testify in court. That led her to write the email to Harris' chief deputy in November 2009 that said Madden was "UNDEPENDABLE."

Massullo said in her ruling that when Woo wrote the email, "individuals at the highest levels of the District Attorney's Office knew that Madden was not a dependable witness." The judge did not name the individuals.

Harris said in the interview that she was not told of the problem at the time by the police or her top assistants. Shown a copy of the correspondence during the interview, she said, "I never saw this email . . . and that was part of my frustration with the process. But I take full responsibility." The email was not copied to Harris.

Woo said in an interview that she did not discuss her concerns with Harris but sent her email to Harris' top assistant at the time, Russell Giuntini. He did not return a call seeking comment.

A month after Woo's email, the crisis escalated as Madden's sister told authorities that she had discovered a vial of cocaine in Madden's apartment. Madden later admitted that "she had taken some cocaine salt from the lab for personal use," according to her attorney's sentencing memorandum. She pleaded no contest to the state's cocaine possession charge, which was removed from her record after she completed a drug-treatment program, according to her lawyer, Paul DeMeester. Madden declined to comment.

Finally, in March 2010, the police publicly announced that there might be problems with evidence from the crime lab. Harris said it was not until that time that she was told of the problems. 

During the three months after Woo's email, Harris' office prosecuted cases that relied on crime-lab testing, but defense attorneys were not told that evidence might have been tainted or that Woo had questioned the credibility of a key prosecution witness.

With her race for attorney general underway, Harris, then 45, faced increasing scrutiny about when she knew about the scandal and why information had been withheld from defense attorneys. Adachi, the public defender, wrote to Harris, asking when her office first learned about the possible tainted evidence.

As questions mounted, a group of defendants asked Massullo, the judge, to dismiss their drug cases.

Woo appeared on behalf of Harris' office to answer questions about why the district attorney didn't inform defense lawyers about potentially tainted evidence. Under a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must turn over evidence that could exonerate defendants. A note attached to the Madden file said "Brady implications."

Woo testified that the district attorney's office had no written procedure outlining how to handle Brady material that should be given to defense attorneys. Woo said Harris relied on police to inform them that such exculpatory evidence existed.

The judge was incredulous.

"But it is the district attorney's office affirmative obligation," Massullo said, according to a court transcript. "It's not the police department who has the affirmative obligation. It's the district attorney. That's who the courts look to. That's who the community looks to, to make sure all of that information constitutionally required is provided to the defense. . . . What I am gathering from what you are saying is that there is no formal way for your office -"

Woo interjected: "In terms of a written policy, I don't think there's a written policy."

Massullo put the blame directly on Harris. In her ruling, she excoriated the district attorney for having "failed to disclose Madden's criminal record, her suspension, and information relating to her ability to perform her work as a lab criminalist."

Harris, asked why her office had not developed a written Brady policy after six years in office, said she had been working on it for two years but had not completed it due to complications over who had access to police personnel information.

"I cared a lot about working out a Brady policy. . . . I was saying in my office, we have to have one. It was a big controversy," she told The Post. "We were working on this, and it was much too slow. It took too long."

At the office of the public defender, meanwhile, attorneys began an expensive, months-long process of examining hundreds of cases that might have involved tainted evidence.

"We held a press conference and publicized the fact that all this misconduct was occurring, and I immediately said, 'This is going to result in dismissal of hundreds of cases,' " Adachi said in the interview. "Her response was something like, 'Yeah, this might affect a dozen cases.' Right away, I knew this is much bigger, and you know as it happened, we got over a thousand cases dismissed."

Brian Buckelew, who was Harris' director of legal affairs and public information, said Harris was "shocked" at the scope of the problem. "There was recognition that this is just sloppy and could result in something that is unfair," he said. "It caught not only San Francisco by surprise but also counties across California and perhaps across the country."

As the criticism hurt Harris' campaign for attorney general, she bristled at Massullo's harsh words about her conduct. In June 2010, Harris' office called Massullo's ruling "contrary to law" and blamed the police for failing to disclose Madden's conduct.

Then, Harris' office accused the judge of bias because her husband was a defense lawyer. That strategy failed when a Monterey County Superior Court judge ruled in August 2010 that Massullo had no bias in the case.

The scandal escalated further when Adachi questioned whether Harris had also failed in separate cases to reveal the names of police officers who had been convicted or found to have committed misconduct. He said at the time that Harris was acting in an "unethical" fashion and "is putting the privacy interests of police officers who have misconduct records and who have been convicted of crimes above the rights of citizens to a fair and honest trial," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Harris said at the time that Adachi was "playing politics with public safety." She said in the Post interview that the police had legitimate privacy concerns.

Harris won her primary and then faced the Republican nominee, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley. He decided not to raise the specifics of the crime-lab issue, while calling her a "radical" who threatened public safety. Harris declared victory on election night, but the race was so tight that Cooley did not concede until three weeks later. Cooley declined to comment.

Harris said the crisis taught her lessons that she carries into her presidential campaign.

"You cannot run an office without designating folks and giving them authority," she said. But she told her deputies after the crime-lab scandal to alert her about serious problems: "Hey, I need to know these things. It will not be bothering me. . . . My name is on the door. And I took an oath."

Some of Harris' aides raised the possibility that only those cases with a proven taint should be dismissed, not all of those that might have been affected. "And I said, 'No, we have to deal with the fact this now called into question the integrity of the system,' " Harris said. "There has to be consequences paid for that."

The Washington Post's Alice Crites contributed to this report.

First published in the Washington Post.

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