- Associated Press - Thursday, June 19, 2014

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Delaware’s chief medical examiner’s office would be abolished and replaced with a new division of forensic science under a bill the state Senate passed Thursday.

The legislation was approved by a vote of 18-2 and now goes to the House. It was prompted by an ongoing scandal involving possible evidence tampering and theft at the state drug-testing lab, which is part of the medical examiner’s office. Two employees of the medical examiner’s office have been arrested, and the chief medical examiner is suspended with pay as officials investigate possible misuse of state resources.

In response, Gov. Jack Markell’s administration proposed new restrictions on the chief medical examiner office and called for oversight to be shifted from the Department of Health and Social Services to the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees the Delaware State Police and other law-enforcement agencies.

The Senate vote came on the same day that the attorney general’s office released a preliminary report on the investigation into missing drug evidence at the drug lab. The report outlined “systemic failings” at the lab that included lack of management, lack of oversight, lack of security and lack of effective policies and procedures.

According to the report, more than 200 drug charges have been dismissed because of failures at the drug lab, and 82 defendants have been notified of discrepancies in the drug evidence in their cases.

“The impact of the issues identified in this report on Delaware’s criminal justice system is profound,” the report stated. “Criminal cases have been dismissed, charges have been reduced, and thousands of offenders are seeking to overturn their convictions.”

But Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Wilmington, said the problems discovered at the lab should not prompt a “knee-jerk reaction” from the Markell administration and lawmakers. Peterson and Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, both voted against the bill, expressing concerns about having a law-enforcement agency oversee state labs charged with processing and analyzing evidence used in criminal cases.

“To me, it’s the fox watching the hen house,” she told Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro. “Your folks have a vested interest in the outcome of these prosecutions, and you’re holding the evidence.”

Peterson referred to a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which noted that public forensic science laboratories ideally should be independent of or autonomous within law-enforcement agencies.

But Schiliro noted that hundreds of labs around the country are associated with police departments or departments of justice.

“From my experience, some of the finest crime labs in the country are associated with investigative agencies,” he said.

State police closed down the lab in February amid a criminal investigation of evidence being tampered with or missing. The investigation began after evidence to be used in a drug trial in Kent County was replaced with blood-pressure pills.

Two employees of the medical examiner’s office are facing criminal charges.

James Woodson, 38, is charged with cocaine trafficking, theft of a controlled substance, tampering with evidence and official misconduct. He is accused of removing cocaine from an evidence bag at the drug lab. Woodson also is charged with illegally obtaining or using criminal-history record information while the investigation into the drug lab was underway.

Farnam Daneshgar, 54, a chemist, is charged with falsifying business records, accused of failing to produce reports documenting discrepancies in drug evidence he reviewed, once in 2013 and again in January of this year.

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