Prosecutors have dropped a felony cocaine charge against a Capitol Heights man after a judge ordered them to turn over detailed information about the Prince George's County police drug lab, in what some say could be the beginning of fallout from problems there.
Defense lawyers say the decision to drop the charge of cocaine possession with intent to distribute against Kenyon K. Edwards further calls into question the integrity of the lab, accused in a federal civil lawsuit of having botched drug tests in criminal cases.
"I think it's telling," county Public Defender Joseph M. Niland said. "When you drop a felony in this situation, it speaks for itself. I don't know what they're going to use as an excuse, but it's peculiar they would do that."
Prince George's State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson and his spokeswoman, Paula Burr, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. Assistant State's Attorney David Whitacre, a top supervisor in Johnson's office, also did not return phone calls. County police spokesman Royce D. Holloway did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Lawyers from Niland's office and private defense attorneys have filed more than 100 motions on behalf of defendants in individual drug cases seeking details and documents from the police drug lab. The motion in the Edwards case was the first one granted.
By dropping the drug case Nov. 1, the Prince George's state's attorney's office avoided being forced to provide detailed information to defense attorneys on the practices of the drug lab and the qualifications of its chemists. The lab tests samples in about 3,000 criminal drug cases annually, and the state's attorney's office relies on those test results in prosecuting cases.
Controversy surrounding the lab has roiled the Prince George's criminal justice system since August, when news reports made public allegations contained in a federal civil lawsuit filed by a former police lab chemist. Kelly Lynn Campbell alleges she was fired in March for speaking out about testing problems in the lab.
After the allegations surfaced, the public defender's office in Prince George's filed a motion seeking to force police officers and prosecutors to provide detailed documents about the inner workings of the drug lab. A Circuit Court judge denied that motion, after which the public defender's office and some private defense attorneys began filing motions.
The state's attorney's office dropped the charge against Edwards, 25, nine days after Circuit Court Judge Sherrie L. Krauser granted a motion by Edwards's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Janet Hart, ordering prosecutors to provide internal documents about the lab's chemists, their qualifications, their methods and their equipment.
While the charge against Edwards was dropped, two of his three co-defendants--who were charged based on the same evidence that was used against Edwards--have pleaded guilty, and the case against the third co-defendant is pending.
On Nov. 1, James Kevin Butler, 18, pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, according to Circuit Court records. On Oct. 22, Nicolo Terrance Jones, 19, pleaded guilty to the same charge, according to court records. The case against Donald Avery Moore, the fourth co-defendant, is pending.
Butler acted as his own attorney and did not file a motion seeking information on the drug lab. Jones's attorney also did not file such a motion. Moore's court file was not immediately available.
Edwards and the others were charged in a case in which county narcotics and SWAT officers, executing a search warrant, raided a Capitol Heights apartment and found the four young men in possession of a razor, a plate, a scale and 161 small plastic bags, all of which field-tested positive for cocaine, according to police charging documents. Police also found four handguns, one outfitted with a laser sight, and a Chinese-made SKS assault rifle, according to charging documents.
Johnson has said police officials have assured him that the police lab is functioning properly, adding that he took police at their word.
However, Hart's 21-page motion seeking internal drug lab files recounted several instances in which drug lab manager John Porter described problems with equipment that called test results into question.
For instance, in an Aug. 12 affidavit made in connection with the public defender's challenge to the drug lab, Porter, who is not a certified chemist, said some test results were considered matches for illegal drugs even if the tests did not conform to textbook standards for that particular instrument, according to Hart's motion.
In a July 27 deposition given in connection with Campbell's lawsuit, Porter said that after drug lab chemists brought the problem to his attention, he did some "experimentation" with the lab device to assuage the concerns of his chemists, according to Hart's motion.
"John Porter substituted his judgment for that of the instrument manufacturers as well as the certified chemists by experimenting with expensive, complicated technical equipment, by his own admission," Hart's motion said.
Hart's motion also cited testimony Porter gave in the July deposition in which he said some files in the computer that controls a device used for testing drug samples were "corrupted" last year.
In the deposition, Porter admitted he did not determine how long the files had been corrupted. He also did not know whether any of the drug samples that had been tested while the computer files were corrupted were retested to ensure their reliability, according to Hart's motion.
In motions filed by his staff, Niland is questioning the reliability of drug lab findings dating from Nov. 4, 1998, when Campbell was scheduled to testify in a drug case in Circuit Court.
On that date, according to Campbell's lawsuit, which is pending in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Campbell told three prosecutors she could not vouch for the test results showing the substance in question was cocaine. Campbell also told the prosecutors about problems with test results in other cases, according to the lawsuit.
Porter had ordered her not to retest any drug samples, according to Campbell's lawsuit.
Prosecutors dropped the drug case in which Campbell was scheduled to testify. Police internal affairs investigators eventually found that Porter had committed no wrongdoing and that Campbell had lied to prosecutors and failed to prepare for the drug case that was dropped. She was fired by Police Chief John S. Farrell in March.
Edwards, the defendant whose drug case was dismissed this month, pleaded guilty in 1996 to one count of robbery and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation. He still faces a charge of first-degree murder stemming from the July 1993 slaying of Gary Senior, who was shot to death in Landover. Edwards also faces a weapons charge, according to court records.