Oregon State Police forensic analysts process drug evidence, rape kits, conduct finger print analysis, and are a crucial part of the legal system as they provide expert testimony during trials. So when an analyst is suspected of tampering with evidence, the ripple effects are felt far and wide.
It was a single piece of evidence that, after raising red flags during a case review, sparked an investigation into analyst Nika Larsen's evidence handling. Now, district attorneys across the state are reviewing more than 2,000 cases sent to Larsen for processing or any lab she had access to. It's the largest case the crime lab has ever dealt with.
"We are taking it very seriously and no stone will be left unturned," says Oregon State Police Public Information Officer Lieutenant Bill Fugate. According to Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, most of the evidence being analyzed is concentrated in Central and Eastern Oregon.
The Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division employs approximately 100 people who analyze evidence at crime labs throughout the state, according to Oregon.gov. The division operates five regional forensic laboratories. A series of systematic checks are in place to ensure the procedural standards are being met, including that after evidence is examined and processed, it undergoes a second review by an additional analyst. It was this procedure that prompted the review of Larsen's work that raised suspicions.
While the investigation initially appeared to involve hundreds of cases, the number of cases being reviewed has skyrocketed into the thousands—2,284 and counting—since Larsen went on administrative leave. Lt. Fugate, the only officer answering questions about the Larsen investigation, says due to this being a criminal investigation, the department cannot answer whether or not this oversight dates back to 2007—the oldest date of cases examined by Larsen.
While it's unclear how far back investigators are digging, the mounting evidence and the involvement of multiple district attorneys raises questions about the effectiveness of lab procedures intended to prevent tampering.
"I can confirm that the Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division does have a policy regarding technical review of casework, and that policy was in effect while Nika Larsen was performing casework," says Forensic Services Division Laboratory Director Brian Medlock, adding that he couldn't comment on specific policy procedures.
The Oregon Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon are involved in the investigation, according to Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel. Hummel explains there are multiple parts to the ongoing investigation.
"One is the criminal investigation of the lab analyst and determining whether she's guilty. Two, if she's guilty, what to charge her with, and three, what jurisdiction will she be charged in," he says. Larsen could be charged with state crimes or she could face federal charges—in which case Hummel's office would not charge her.
Checks and balances
The investigation is looking at cases in which Larsen was allegedly replacing prescription drugs with over the counter pills and instances of missing drugs, according to Hummel. But the investigation is complex because it's not limited to cases assigned only to Larsen, and includes evidence in all the labs she had access to. Hummel says he has concerns about the lack of checks and balances present in the labs, noting that Larsen had access to the lab
after hours when other technicians weren't around to observe her.
"I have not been shy about saying this; there are policies, procedures that are lacking in the crime lab," he says. "One glaring example of that is that one lab technician could have access to every piece of evidence in the lab strikes me. As a basic protection, you would just have access to the evidence that's assigned to you, and so if you are doing something wrong and then you're caught, then the damage is contained."
Oregon Governor Kate Brown has formed a workgroup comprised of lawyers and a police officer to examine the procedures and practices of the Oregon State Police Crime Lab. While Governor Brown's press office did not confirm if this workgroup was formed in response to allegations against Larsen, a press release stated, "The workgroup will be tasked with examining the recent allegations of tampering and will identify any changes that need to be made." The workgroup is co-chaired by House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson and Senator Jackie Winters. According to Melissa Navas with the Governor's Office, an official meeting date has not been set.
Lt. Fugate says Oregon crime labs are voluntarily accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board. The accreditation process includes both internal and external audits every 24 months, with "an additional external audit to ensure DNA section compliance with the FBI Quality Assurance standards at minimum every other year."
The latest Annual Progress Performance Report available to the public, from the 2011-2012 fiscal year, indicates other shortfalls in the lab's processing of evidence.
"We estimate in past years, up to 30 percent of crimes needing evidence examined by the Forensic Services Division were not submitted, due to large backlogs in casework analysis," the report reads.
Because the number of cases sometimes exceeds the capacity of a single lab, cases can be transferred from lab to lab. Lt. Fugate says that's one of the reasons this case is so large.
"The Bend lab services the counties around it, and they defer cases and they can ship cases," he explains. They can also take cases from overburdened labs in other counties.
The scope of the investigation
Hummel says most counties in Oregon will have a few cases to review. In Deschutes County, he's only reviewing drug cases and in an update on Oct. 21, he wrote a letter to the members of the Deschutes County Criminal Law Defense Bar stating, "Due to the fact there is no evidence that the analyst in question tampered with evidence other than drug evidence, I have no reason to believe non-drug cases are suspect."
Larsen's cases in Deschutes County date back to 2013. But according to Hummel, OSP crime labs test everything from drug cases to ballistics, so other counties could be looking at a wider range of cases.
"She's worked on every possible [type of] case," he says.
A large number of the cases—1,354, handled from January 2013 to November 2014—being investigated are in Umatilla County, but they aren't limited to drug cases. However, Umatilla County District Attorney Daniel Primus refused to answer questions regarding Larsen's access to the lab or to other analysts' evidence, except to say, "She worked in the lab with other analysts."
In Harney County, District Attorney Tim Colahan is reviewing 230 cases as of Oct. 23.
"I do not know if Ms. Larsen had access to other analyst's cases as I have seen no investigative reports yet," he says. Colahan's investigation includes drug and finger print cases. "[The] oldest drug case was reported to us on 8/25/2008, [and the] oldest latent print case was reported to us on 08/29/2007," he wrote in an email.
Although Hummel doesn't believe that Larsen tampered with non-drug evidence, initially, every piece of evidence in the Bend crime lab was suspect, so he requested a list of all cases analyzed over the last two years.
His office released a checklist containing nine factors used for determining the involvement of Larsen in drug cases including indicators such as the presence of controlled substances prior to the lab testing, quantity issues, and the types of drugs. After reviewing each case Hummel will determine whether or not the prior conviction stands.
"If I think—in spite of the problems with this lab analyst—the conviction is still valid if the evidence in a particular case is proper...then I'm going to argue that the conviction should stand," he says. "But if there's any hint in any one case of a case that this analyst's involvement causes me to question the integrity of that conviction, I won't hesitate to dismiss that case. I'm sure my office will be dismissing numerous cases."